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

May 29 2012   12:01AM GMT

Meeting customers

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A recent edit in an IT publication discussed the pitfalls of the CIO going out on the field meeting the end customers of the company’s products or services. It highlighted the fact that most CXOs wanted the CIO to stay away from the customers and not encroach on their territory. The CIO meeting customers was seen as disruptive and a threat to their relationship and the final moment of truth with the consumer. This observation was believed to be consistent across industries as well as size of the company.

A call to the Editor resulted in her portraying the reality she had witnessed on the discussion table that included some heavy weight CIOs. They were tentative in their approach to reaching out to customers; this was not viewed kindly with heavy brick-walling. A casual interaction was fine, but not continued engagement that may result in a different reality for the sales / marketing teams. Of course, there were a few outlier CIOs who did systemically meet the customers and shared insights with their teams.

My reassessment
My reality being different from the majority, I decided to chat up with some CXOs to determine if reality was indeed that grim. I picked a few high-touch industries like retail, banking and airlines, and added some low touch ones like pharmaceuticals and FMCG where the end consumer is largely faceless. Then I started searching through the good old visiting card rolodex, my connections on social media and professional networking sites; finally adding some with help from industry bodies.

I had some apprehension if I will get candid responses, so I decided to use the research envelope which does normally get open answers; you know researchers are perceived as non-threatening since in a statistical model, there is no identity. The modus operandi worked well and my research was successful in capturing reality with high fidelity. The correlation to industry or size of company was not decisive, the general trend was however quite evident.

Marketing and Sales have over the last few years faced uncertainty due to the global economic uncertainty and the impact it has had on consumer sentiment. Corporate as well as individual spending has seen a general holding back. Do we really need to spend? Do I really need the latest gadget? Such decision points have resulted in pressure that has everyone looking inward more than outward. Natural reaction has been to hold on to the fragile relationships. What if the discussion turned away the customer? What do you know about customers anyway?

Mr CIO, you have no business to …!
One of them quite paranoid went on to state that IT has no business prying into relationships; he had advised his team to keep everyone at bay like the pirates; auditors, information security, anyone who asked for data was turned away. Even the BI reporting was curtailed lest it be used by someone to create different conclusions. The company in question was struggling for growth though doing better than some of their competitors. In the high growth era, they were the leaders, now that appeared to be chapters in a history textbook.

Can the CIO change this behavior? Being an optimist, I would say, probably yes! Is it worth the effort? Many would say, certainly not! And I tend to agree with the collective wisdom though with a caveat. I believe that CIOs are always at the short end of disruption; so they should not back off in the face of this push back but continue the dialogue while getting others behind the cause. Different perspectives have always created new opportunities. After all, you cannot expect different results if you continued doing the same thing over and over again. I have lived by this maxim and I am still alive.

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