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CIO success differentiators

“I cannot for the life of me understand boards and CEOs that don’t ensure they have an IT person on the management team… Anyone who doesn’t is asking for their competitors who do so to beat them,” Paul Coby, CIO, British Airways

Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and other Information Technology (IT) executives have rewarding yet intense and complicated jobs. Complex systems need to run, overburdened hardware needs to be up to date, longer-term architecture strategy needs to be developed and executed upon, transformation programs need to be rolled out, capabilities need to be delivered, and proper governance around information security and risk needs to be adhered to. At the same time, CIOs must be attentive to innovate with the business and continually demonstrate the competence, strength and value of the IT organisation. All of this is occurring as budgets are being challenged, e-mail is piling up, and the leadership team is catering to the careers and morale of a complex mix of highly intelligent programmers, analysts and much needed IT support personnel.

As a result, CIOs can become distracted and focus on the most urgent of the many key ingredients that are essential to their success. Why do they do this? This is because the IT leadership team, the IT organisation and business partners expect them to become very involved when an urgent matter arises. Let us face it: CIOs enjoy digging into the latest urgent issue.

For example, I have been sitting in the Business Continuity site for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada for the last few weeks. We are gradually bringing back to life services across this Province after Hurricane Igor. With this event, like many natural disasters, tremendous opportunities arise for projects of all shapes and sizes, with CIOs playing a pivotal role.

Every disaster has a different face, so no one can accurately predict what may be needed. The need for astute CIOs in this environment is critical. Planning has to be flexible enough to cope with a variable range of possible occurrences. Incidents like this one give businesses and public bodies a chance to see their Disaster Recovery (DR) technology and plans in action. While some organisations pass with flying colors, the plans of others are exposed as incomplete, unrealistic and technologically flawed.

Some DR plans are too simplistic, do not mesh with the real world and have little value in an emergency. Others are unnecessarily written in complex language, which results in nobody reading them. The trick is finding a balance. But even companies and public agencies with well-compiled plans can look foolish if nobody can find the plan when they need it. It is no good if it is lost in a binder or a shared drive that is down because of the disaster. Among other crisis associated with the atrocious events on 9/11, one of the major failures was that numerous business continuity plans were not acted upon as planned simply because responsible staff members were too taken aback by the circumstances. Nevertheless, simple steps can help. Keeping copies of the plan in multiple locations is advisable. Fortunately, that was one of the first steps I took when I came on board over a year ago to assist this province with various Information Technology and Information Management needs.

Now, what about other commitments a CIO has before a disaster or emergency arises? As with any IT organisation, urgent matters continuously arise, and the CIO loses track of the most important elements of running the enterprise. This scenario occurs over and over again, most of the time to the detriment of the CIO.
CIOs try many things to avoid this situation. Some hire a chief of staff and bring on experienced project managers. Others instruct their executive assistant to block out think time into their calendars. They go to change management and leadership training. They start lists and utilise latest technology to try and save time. They work late. They have staff meetings to catch up on what is going on. They cancel town hall meetings. And the list goes on.

However, for IT leaders, the real key to success is balance. It is absolutely critical for CIOs to have a balanced list of key responsibilities and focus on all of them every day. To do that, they need to delegate effectively, trust and entrust their leadership and stay abreast on current research on industry trends. Most importantly, they must communicate more effectively. Otherwise, business leadership will lose faith, dramatically shortening the CIO’s tenure in an organisation.

When running the IT organisation, CIOs and other IT leaders must focus on the larger vision. Their mission is clear: the CIO is foremost a business leader who delivers value. He or she is one who relentlessly delivers IT in support of business objectives, while continually seeking to drive down overall costs.
The recipe for success for the CIO and the business includes running the team effectively and reducing expenses. They both appear basic and somewhat unglamorous, but this is the most fundamental principle of running IT. Nothing will undermine the credibility of IT management more than instability and a defective platform. Without predictable, reliable, and stable systems and infrastructure, permanent progress is just not possible. Transformation goals cannot be achieved in an environment of unreliable technology.

The CIO must have an experienced leader running the operational platform. This individual must also understand the business. Putting a very technical leader in charge of operations will not work. Rather, the leader must understand and be able to explain the business implications of operational issues, in addition to understanding the systems and technology. The operations head must be able to articulate an operational vision for the organisation.

The CIO, IT leadership and the IT organisation as a whole must develop a culture that values operational competency. Utilising some of the teachings from Scrum the CIO should be briefed on operational matters routinely. He or she needs to know the status of regular processes, review the key metrics, and understand the main operational risks and issues including audit findings, significant risk indicators and information security matters.

Cutting costs is more than simply satisfying the latest directive of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). CIOs must demonstrate a commitment to reducing expenses perpetually, even in a climate in which budgets increase. A CIO who earns a reputation for being fiscally responsible will quickly earn the respect of executive leadership. CIOs who constantly find ways to mitigate unnecessary expenses are given more consideration when they request additional funding or an investment in IT.

So, how can the CIO reduce expenses with tight budgets? It starts with culture. IT professionals at all levels know where the waste is. Incorporate cost-cutting goals into staff performance objectives. Most important, make it someone’s job to find ways to reduce expenses. At the same time, ensure that the organisation understands that reducing expenses does not automatically mean eliminating jobs. CIOs need to unleash the potential of their IT leaders and associates.

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