IS Survival Guide

SAN MATEO (03/06/2000) - MANAGEMENT SPEAK: It's a great theory, but ...

TRANSLATION: I disagree, but I'm not sure why.

-- Today's anonymous contributor theorizes why some managers reject good ideas.

NEWS FLASH! In another case of psychologists proving what we've long suspected, a recent, highly publicized study proved the inverse correlation between ability and self-assessment.

Armed with this factoid, armies of mediocre programmers will try to improve perceptions of their abilities by adding humility to their conversations. In retaliation, managers will take their humility at face value. But I digress.

Our subject is CIO, not programmer competence.

I just read another version of the "CIOs need to know the business" article. I think there's just one article on the subject. The point is that businesses don't want technology for technology's sake -- it must serve a business need, which successful CIOs must comprehend.

Before we go on, let's form a circle and chant: "CIOs must know the business and never propose technology for technology's sake." Maybe if we say it loud and proud a few times, we'll persuade everyone that we've fully grasped this concept. Then we can move onto the next one, made many times in this space:

That "knowing the business" is more than abstract notions such as strategies and business models. The most important knowledge of the business is the interests of every important decision maker. At least half of a CIO's time is spent selling to the board, the CEO, senior executives, and middle managers.

If you don't like the idea of internal selling, find a different phrase for persuading others to adopt your concepts while giving you money. If it looks, waddles, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If it looks, smells, and tastes like selling, it's selling.

To sell effectively, you must understand your prospects empathetically. You must understand the business formally, politically, and personally.

Why do so many seemingly sensible people jump from here to the ridiculous notion that the CIO can delegate the "understanding technology" part of running IS to subordinates? Would anyone reach a similar conclusion for the CFO, who now doesn't need to understand accounting, just "the business"?

Of course not. They'd probably reach the right conclusion for the wrong reason, explaining that at the end of the day -- or at least the fiscal year -- the money is the business. Robert McNamara, overconfident in his ability due to his business resume (sound familiar?), pursued victory in Vietnam in a similar way, running a metrics-driven war where body counts (profits), not strategy and tactics, mattered.

CFOs understand finance and accounting because they have to to lead that part of the business. CIOs need to understand information technology because that's what they're responsible for. Why is this controversial?

Go back to the idea that CIOs spend a lot of their time selling. What do really great salespeople do? They paint a persuasive picture of how great your world will be once you buy their product. The first step: Understand your product. In the case of a CIO, that's IT. Without that knowledge, no matter how good you are at step two -- understanding your prospect's world -- you'll have no way of progressing to step three, which is putting that knowledge and your product together.

Do you understand both? Send Bob an e-mail at Bob_Lewis@compuserve.com, or join his forum on InfoWorld.com. Bob Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant at Perot Systems.

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