CIO: Change Isn't Optional

Information technology professionals like to think they're old hands at dealing with change. After all, anyone who has cut their teeth on a mainframe or even an 8086 has already lived through many generations of technological innovation. Many of these technical people still believe that their primary goal is the care and feeding of corporate information systems. This impression must be corrected and there is no one to do it but the CEO.

I and T are two little letters that, for almost as long as they've been strung together, have struck fear in the heart of many CEOs. And for a good reason. In past days, those two letters came accompanied by a large price tag -- calculated in time, in false starts and most clearly in dashed hopes and dreams. ROI? Many didn't even get that far.

Privy to scores of horror stories, countless CEOs have shied away from IT investments, knowing they were increasingly necessary, but waiting for all the bugs and incompatibilities to be worked out.

Ask IS managers -- from supervisors to CIOs -- and they'll tell you their role is to enable the business to achieve its goals through IT. These managers want to participate in business decisions and they sure want line managers at least to have a better understanding of IT. But ultimately, the CEO and top line management must call the tune and the IS operation must dance to it.

The e-factor

The next challenge for many in the executive suite is electronic commerce and the Internet. Why is the CEO so interested? Because electronic commerce holds great promise in helping companies put their products into businesses and homes without having to worry about mass distribution bottlenecks and the imperative that costs have to be added at every step of the value chain.

A new generation of technology savvy business leaders is beginning to inhabit the top leadership posts at some of Australia's largest companies. And as they do so, the ultimate technology-buying decisions will become a stronger collaborative process between IT executives and their superiors in the executive suite.

Smart chief executives are also beginning to ask themselves: Do I need a CIO who is mainly a technologist? Or should my CIO be primarily a business leader in his or her own right? Can understanding the past help my CIO to endure the storms of the future?

Too often the CIO isn't seen as an equal member of the senior management team; in turn, the IT organisation is viewed as a drain on costs with no real relevance to business needs. Making sure that the CIO and IT organisation are business literate and that the rest of the senior management know something about IT is one way to tackle this problem.

Companies no longer have safe havens in the marketplace; competitive forces now surround them. An enlightening exercise for anyone who's impressed by all we can do with technology is to think for a few minutes about what we can't do.

Every day can present a potential emergency -- a new competitor, a security breach, an impossible implementation, a merger -- and in most cases the CIOs response can mean the difference between a business future or death.

One of the biggest challenges facing tomorrow's managers is finding the outstanding people to do the work. This is doubly true in the IS world, where the conundrum is to find individuals doubly endowed with first-rate technical skills as well as with keen management instincts.

Leadership challenge

Of the many revolutions under way in IS, the revolution in leadership must be the most critical of all. IT will play an enormous role in empowering new ways of dealing with customers, suppliers, employees and partners, and in allowing anyone in the business to have a greater access to the appropriate knowledge and information.

But the life of people who manage technology in business encompasses much more than IT: it also includes change, customer-centric focus, culture, innovation, motivation and opportunity.

Whatever the title, these are just some of the challenges for today's CIO.

The CEO-CIO reporting relationship is no longer a matter of cosmetics. Companies in which the CEO and the CIO have a close working relationship are typically the first to develop the most sophisticated and powerful business applications.

One clear implication of an aligned CEO-CIO partnership is more CIO participation in strategic planning sessions. Despite all the historical implications of IT, an enterprise cannot succeed if its CIO is denied access to strategic planning discussions. If the CEO considers the CIO an expense rather than an asset, he or she is doing both of them a disservice.

Business executives and technical managers must also learn to speak each other's language. CEOs must overcome the techno-illiteracy crises by becoming comfortable with technical terms and concepts and CIOs in turn, must quickly become familiar with business concepts.

Every profession today has its acronyms, abbreviations and buzzwords -- indeed they are some of the qualities that define a profession -- but could there be an industry with a more robust fascination for jargon than the IT industry?

The agenda for IT is to learn to lead the avalanche of technologies plus customer relationships, plus the supply chain, plus profitability structures. What an opportunity. Yet most of all they need the consistent, long term support of top management, otherwise, a winning idea and the technology that would make it work might as well be an ocean apart.

A new era of computing capable of supporting flexible working, taking advantage of all available markets and sustaining the agile enterprise is now available. Effective IT management requires recognising this new order and IT's changing role -- its scope is now the enterprise; its focus is bringing value to the business and architecting change. The objective is business integration, with IT measured by its role in improving business processes, customer service and ultimately profits.

The role of the CIO is nothing if not exacting and demanding. Perhaps the appropriate interpretation of a CIO actually should for the future become "Change Isn't Optional".

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