Oh I See! Getting CIOs to view their jobs from a different angle

Nov 2 2010   6:00AM GMT

Justifying IT investments, the bicycle stand syndrome

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A long time back during a budget meeting, one of my CEOs narrated a story (or maybe a fable) on Boardroom discussions on budgets. This story has stayed with me for a long time, and the memory was refreshed last week in a discussion with some industry leaders. Here’s the story:

In the Board meeting of a large and successful company with multiple manufacturing plants, two agenda items were tabled; first to discuss $400 million investment in a new manufacturing facility, and the second the layout including employee amenities of the same manufacturing plant. The second agenda item was unusual for the board to discuss, but found its way into the chambers since the Employee Satisfaction Index at one of the older plants was low. The financial proposal was tabled by the Head of Manufacturing, with added guidance from the CFO. The resolution was passed unanimously, and done with, in about half an hour.

However, the discussion on amenities took almost two hours — with the longest time spent on the location, structure and type of the bicycle stand. Everyone had an opinion, and disagreements continued until the Chairman of the Board decided to put the debate at rest by appointing a committee headed by the HR Head to review other plants (including those of competitors) and table the recommendations in the next meeting.

Last week, the meeting with fellow CIOs and a few marketing heads veered towards budgeting and ROI. Snide remarks aside, the debate on how these distinct functions justify their million dollar proposals took an interesting turn. When the CIO presents a business case for an enterprise wide system that potentially benefits everyone but requires significant participation and change, it takes immense effort and documentation — in order to get everyone to listen, review and agree. Multiple iterations are the norm, and a chain of signatures essential before the grant of even a tentative approval. Whereas, the CMO sails through in a jiffy citing brand building, customer touch and impact on sales, even when most of them are not necessarily attributable to the discussed campaign or idea.

Why is it so difficult for CIOs to get funding for new projects as compared to, say CMOs? The difference is, I would guess in many parts. To begin with, the language in which these proposals are put across. Another is the change that IT purports to create in a change-averse world. It could also be that marketing as a function always focuses on the end customer, while IT initiatives are predominantly inward focused (though that is changing fast now). The conversation initiated by CIOs when they connect to stakeholders and customers does find traction. So maybe peer learning has to be gained on how to pitch right the first time, every time, and win when every function is competing for the same precious resources.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) in his unique manner put across the marketing formula, “It’s just liquor and guessing”. I have yet to find a good enough one on IT budgeting.

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