CIO As “Practical Visionary”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When Michael Gliedman first arrived at the headquarters of the National Basketball Association in 1999 to become its new chief information officer (CIO), he found a splintered information technology environment…..Gliedman’s first task as CIO was to focus on the supply side of the IT business equation: bringing equipment up to speed, making sure core technology services worked consistently and efficiently, and consolidating the league’s IT efforts under his authority — a process that took Gliedman about 18 months.  “There’s no way anybody in the business is going to take you seriously if it’s taking your guys 20 minutes to answer the help-desk phone,” he says.  “The culture around here is that you spend a lot of time listening and quietly fixing things in the background.  Then, after you’ve proven yourself, people will take you seriously enough to give you a seat at the table.”…..All the while, Gliedman has to make sure basic operations run smoothly to maintain the trust that he has earned throughout the league.  In short, Gliedman is the model 21st-century CIO.  These days he is training his focus on the demand side of the IT business equation, where the needs of the business are paramount, rather than spending most of his time on such typical supply-side concerns as cutting IT costs — although these responsibilities are still very important.  He has become a serious contributor to the league’s business results by harnessing powerful new technologies that make real-time information attractive and accessible both internally and to the NBA’s constituents and fans around the world.  That’s why he — like any other truly strategic CIO — needs to be among the inner circle of senior leadership.  Unless the information chief knows where the organization is going, he or she won’t know what capabilities will be strategically paramount.  A strategic CIO has much to offer the organization; with specialized knowledge of the capabilities, requirements, and costs of new technology, the CIO is uniquely positioned to help the organization set priorities that affect every one of its operations…..As operations and markets become more fragmented, there is an ever-greater need for IT to bind together a company and augment its collective intellect (to paraphrase computer interface pioneer Douglas Engelbart).  IT can be used to address problems of mounting complexity and to help an orga­nization move into new products, new processes, and new markets, at home and around the world.  New technologies are always changing how companies operate internally and how they look at their customers, suppliers, partners, sales channels, and markets.  In this context, it is up to the CIO to be a practical visionary: matching his or her organization’s tech-based capabilities to its current needs and to its future image of itself.  He or she must also understand whether and how to enhance and extend the organization’s IT capabilities.  And the most successful CIOs not only support the strategic direction of their organizations, but help set it.  In doing so, they will bring back one of the almost-forgotten aspects of the personal computer revolution of the 1980s: It made work more engaging by making people more powerful.  That shift turned out to have enormous strategic value…..The resulting boom in productivity in the developed world has yet to slacken…..The new CIO has an opportunity to change the way organizations adopt and use technology…..The range of Web 2.0 technologies — social networking software, video-sharing sites, multi-participant simulated environments, and creative exchanges — has sparked a level of excitement not seen since the early days of the Internet.  A new generation that has never lived without computers and pervasive telecommunications is entering the workforce with unprecedented levels of technological sophistication and expectations of free access and universal mobility.  Once again, we have a multiplicity of options, and an opportunity for the whole enterprise to think more strategically about its information choices and priorities, to build the capabilities needed to meet strategic goals, and to learn better practices every step along the way.


CIOs at large enterprises — whether commercial, governmental, or nonprofit — typically split their time be­tween business/strategy concerns and technological/operational concerns.  On the one hand, whether or not most CIOs have a seat at the executive table, they look to drive the growth and profitability of their company (or, in the case of nonprofits, achieve the mission; or, in the case of government organizations, support increasingly complex missions and programs), just like every other executive.  On the other hand, many CIOs play an internal service role.  The CIO must be sure that the trains run efficiently — that the organization’s many projects arrive on time and on budget, that its departments operate smoothly, and that the technology supporting the business works.  He or she must also ensure that key business processes run as effectively as possible across the enterprise, often enabled by the successful deployment of new systems and technologies.  In addition to these operational concerns, CIOs are subject to a whole range of other distractions and disruptions that include security threats (for instance, the theft of proprietary information or denial-of-service attacks that can shut down an enterprise’s Web site); compliance and regulatory concerns, which are increasing every year; and even environmental issues such as power usage.  Meanwhile, the CIO must synchronize activities with virtually every function in the corporation, including finance, given that IT is a major cost center at most companies, and procurement and acquisition, which is critical to ensuring that the right technology is bought at the right time for the right price.  And all this must be accomplished in the face of increasing difficulties in staffing the IT department and with constrained financial resources, given the reality of today’s business environment.  Unless operational concerns are managed adroitly, they can easily overwhelm the IT department and force CIOs into a reactive mode in which they spend all their time dealing with supply-side issues.  Alternatively, if they are doing their operational job well, CIOs may simply go unnoticed.  As critical as daily operations are, a CIO in an operations-only mode is unlikely to generate confidence among business-oriented colleagues looking for contributions to the enterprise’s ongoing strategic conversation.  How can CIOs boost corporate confidence in IT’s value?  It depends in large part on their ability to keep the IT function running efficiently.  It’s an issue of reputation and trust: If they can’t take care of their own specialty, how can top business executives expect them to function strategically?  These skills extend to the ability to manage many projects effectively.  Information technology is a highly project-oriented activity; large corporations often number their ongoing IT projects in the hundreds, if not the thousands.  The reputation of the CIO frequently rests on his or her ability to complete projects on time and on budget, demonstrate the value of every project by showing how it will contribute to the organization’s overall strategic goals, and develop measures that show how a particular technology effort has contributed to business performance or productivity…..In that way, IT, traditionally seen as a supplier of services on demand, has been transformed into a strategy-driven function, with the business now regularly saying, as Gliedman puts it, “We’re thinking about doing something next season, and we want your ideas on the best way to do it.”…..“It’s no longer a matter of the business saying, ‘This is what we want,’ and we take the orders,” he says.  “It’s now a much more collaborative effort.”


The cultural walls that have long separated the CIO from his or her business-oriented colleagues must be torn down, and that can happen only if the CIO can transform himself or herself into a true “chief of information,” not a chief of technology, or of the network, or of security.  The issue isn’t the bits and bytes that make up the technology in IT.  As strategy+business Contributing Editor Nicholas G. Carr argued in a notorious 2003 Harvard Business Review article titled “IT Doesn’t Matter,” information technology has be­come a commodity, and as such, it cannot be counted on by corporations to create a sustainable competitive advantage.  “What makes a resource truly strategic,” wrote Carr, “is not ubiquity but scarcity.”  Carr was right that the technology has become ubiquitous, but the talent and wisdom required to use it strategically — to successfully capture, analyze, and employ information to the greater end of profitability and growth — are all too scarce.  That’s why, in practice, the quality of the CIO — and of the IT staff — has proven to make a difference in competitiveness.  Now, however, the need for better, faster information on the business side and the requirement to optimize global business processes, combined with new technologies that can significantly increase the value of the information generated by the IT department, has created a golden opportunity for information chiefs to make an even greater strategic contribution.  First, the business side is demanding more open technologies — nonproprietary, open source, with open standards — that won’t slow the business down or trap it in outmoded, stolid ways of operating.  These include standardized, global “off-the-shelf” solutions, such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) packages, as well as low-cost, standardized IT infrastructure elements.  Second, enterprises are turning more frequently to a variety of “business intelligence” technologies with which they can analyze the supply chain and manufacturing, on one side, and markets and customers, on the other.  These technologies must have the ability to digest massive amounts of information, analyze it in ways that can aid the business side in both day-to-day operations and longer-term planning, and then provide those results on a real-time basis to everyone in the enterprise who can benefit from it…..Finally, the business units are looking to CIOs to provide technologies strong on interoperability.  They must work together seamlessly, allowing the enterprise maximum flexibility in how it uses the information it gathers and the ability to look at its information in new ways that can suggest new opportunities.  For the CIOs who step up to a more strategic role, success will depend in large part on having the ability to minimize the many operational, budgetary, and other distractions that typically trap them in the role of chief technician.  Strategic CIOs must also maintain a consistent focus on the core mission of their organization — its strategic goals and tactical plans.  Doing so demands that CIOs be able to clearly explain the role technology plays in boosting the long-term health of the organization.  This requires the abil­ity to knock down the cultural walls that have traditionally separated IT from the business side, at all levels of the organization — to ensure, for instance, that the company’s technology strategy is seamlessly incorporated into its overarching corporate strategy, and that those two are never separated.  The goal: to gain recognition as the organization’s lead information strategy planner and visionary.


Strategic CIOs must stress the “I” in CIO, working with the business to make certain that information as a critical asset is optimized, and that the organization’s information management program, and the technology on which it depends, is not a hindrance to strategic and operational flexibility but rather an enabler on which the business can depend in its quest for competitive advantage.  To that end, strategic CIOs must manage the entire life cycle of information, from collection, to maintenance, to analysis and use.  And they must do so in a way that maximizes its value to the business side, by helping determine what kinds of information are most valuable in making decisions.  They must also learn to package that information in ways that will encourage its use by those who can most benefit by it.  That also means being able to measure the value of that information and its overall effect on the organization’s performance.  Given the degree to which IT has infiltrated every aspect of large enterprises, strategic CIOs must be able to speak a wide variety of corporate languages — operations, finance, manufacturing, marketing, sales — and to work with top executives, including the CEO, COO, and CFO; the heads of procurement and HR; and the leaders of individual business units.  That demands an unusually broad set of business and communi­cation skills, a combination not often associated with “techies.”  In all of these working relationships, strategic CIOs must play the role of technology visionary.  This involves working regularly with other executives to develop answers to a series of significant questions: What is the role of information technology in the organization, given its strategic goals?  What new technologies should the company be watching, and why?  Which computer systems might profitably link to suppliers and customers, and how might the boundaries be crossed effectively?  What might the company be able to do differently than it has done in the past?  What might it be able to do for the first time?  Answering these questions is primarily a leadership duty — the strategic CIO is in effect the “chief technology proselytizer” — but the organization will be successful only if those questions are asked and answered within the context of short-term and long-term success.  The history of IT is riddled with stories of visionary IT executives who couldn’t keep the corporate networks running efficiently or get the help-desk phones answered.  The true visionary CIO must work within an effective IT governance process that allows for experimentation in a controlled, business-oriented environment.  There is no place in the strategic CIO’s thinking for “technology for technology’s sake.”  Based on the experience of the NBA’s Michael Gliedman and others who have done well in the role, we have observed that certain guidelines enable CIOs to succeed as strategic leaders:

  • …..demonstrate that IT could operate efficiently, that it could give people throughout the organization the tools and help they needed without being asked.
  • …..Effective IT governance is critical to developing a smooth-running IT operation.  If the lines of authority and responsibility regarding spending, project approval, and strategic initiatives aren’t clear, no CIO can be strategic or successful.  The CIO will have no clear sense of where he or she stands, and no confidence regarding how to move ahead on projects critical to the success of the enterprise.
  • Look ahead.  The strategic CIO is also, by definition, the CIO of the future.  As such, CIOs should study all the new technologies coming down the pipeline, whether or not they appear to be suited to the CIO’s company or industry.  CIOs need to take the time to think about their potential strategic value, not today, but five or 10 years from now.  And they should talk with their peers within the company about how such technologies might fit in with strategies they too are seeing down the road.  If CIOs aren’t keeping these emerging technologies on their radar, it is at their peril: They can bet there’s a competitor out there who is.

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