Are CIOs Looking Down When They Should Be Looking Up?

CIOs Should Be Looking Up At Strategic Goals, Not Down At Tactile Ones
CIOs Should Be Looking Up At Strategic Goals, Not Down At Tactile Ones

Rob Preston over at Information Week was talking about some interesting CIO studies that were done recently and what they show is that it looks like CIOs are not spending their time where they should be. As the U.S. (and the rest of the world!) sufferers through a financial downturn, you’d think that everyone would be trying to show just how valuable they are to the company. Sadly, in the case of CIOs it doesn’t look like this is happening…

The surveys of CIOs showed that “IT / Business Alignment” is still a top priority for CIOs. Now what makes this interesting is that this has been on the top of CIOs to-do list for a very long time. Preston makes the point that he is hoping that internal alignment between IT shops and their business counterparts has already occurred. He is hoping that what CIOs are talking about is taking IT / business alignment to the next step and extending it down the supplier path and perhaps even reaching out to align with the customer. I hear his frustration; however, I don’t think that internal alignment has actually occurred yet, but more about that later on.

One of the pieces of good news that came from the survey of CIOs was that items such as “IT strategic planning” have moved up CIOs to-do list. The hope is that if IT departments are involved in these types of activities, then as things get tighter due to the economic downturn IT funding won’t be slashed as much as it has been in the past. When IT projects are seen as “nice to have” instead of “must have”, it’s far easier for a firm to take money away from an IT department.

The biggest concern that came out of the two CIO surveys that Preston talks about are how the CIOs identified how their departments were contributing to the overall success of their firms. You would be hoping to hear some solid business thinking here; however, that was not the case. Instead, traditional IT tasks such as maintaining existing systems, ensuring network operation, deploying large-scale systems, reducing costs by automating processes, etc. If you read though this list with a careful eye, you’ll notice that any one of these tasks could be done by an outsourcing firm just as well as a captive IT shop.

What does all of this mean? To put it simply, CIOs get that they need to do a better job of becoming part of the business. When they think long term, they are working to figure out how they can make their IT department help the business to succeed. However, the problem comes in the short term. Too many IT departments are focused on doing what they have always been doing – the comfortable stuff. The problem seems to be that nobody, CIOs included, really knows how to get from here (present time) to there (IT / business alignment nirvana). That’s sorta sad because the steps are pretty clear to me. They start out like this:

  1. Business Wins: IT needs to accept that it needs to become more like the rest of the business, not the other way around. IT is just one department, the rest of the business is much bigger and they make the money. Enough said.
  2. Subject Matter Experts Rule: IT staff need to spend some serious time learning everything that they can about the business that they are working in. No matter if you work with food, drugs, cars, or glass, everyone in IT needs to understand how that industry operates from top to bottom.
  3. Learn To Make Life Easier For The Business: IT exists to make life easier for the business – so show it! Specifically, IT should understand how the business runs so that it can identify and automate business processes that slow the business down.
  4. Speak The Language Of Business: Develop the ability to speak the language of the industry! This is how the rest of the company communicates and it’s high time that the IT department gets on board. Stop talking about version control, requirements gathering, maintenance upgrades, server consolidation because the rest of the company doesn’t have a clue what you are talking about. Instead talk about revenue, customer retention, driving sales growth, and bottom line results.

Hopefully the next time a bunch of CIOs are surveyed, they’ll have the right set of “looking up” priorities that are being used to manage their short term actions.

Does your IT department have a tactical or a strategic focus? Does your team have a good understanding of the industry that you are working in or is everyone just really good at “IT stuff”? What do you think that it would take to transform your IT shop into a business driver for your firm? Leave a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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