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


March 29, 2011  10:08 AM

Quest for the perfect SLA

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I recently had a discussion with one of the respected global company that specializes in providing consulting around outsourcing and managing service level agreements (SLAs). My friend on the other side of the phone passionately tried to convince me why it is important to create SLAs that can tie down every aspect of the service that the outsourced service provider will deliver now or in the future. He cited many examples of how his company helped many customers ‘win’.
In another setting, a debate was set off between CIOs on how they ensure that their service providers deliver what they promise consistently that meets the promise to the business. For more than a year, one of them has been unsuccessfully trying to get a bunch of vendors to come to the table for a discussion on creating effective SLAs. Not that the vendors are shy of the subject but collectively at the same table with multiple CIOs is not a viable proposition.

Why SLAs fail
Service levels matter to everyone, the customer, the provider and the end consumer of the customer; I do not believe that deficiency of service is due to willful behavior or mal-intent. The exception to this may be in monopolistic scenarios where no incentive exists. When it is relatively easy to switch services or move business to competition, efforts are indeed put in by the provider, the end results may however not be aligned to expectations.
The reasons why SLAs fail could be many, ranging from ambiguous definition of service, staff involved in execution not being aware of quality of service expected, lack of skills on the ground, unrealistic expectations, or force majeure conditions, to name a few. Irrespective of the reasons, when things do go wrong, contracts come out of the closet again to review the penalties that can be levied or avoided depending on the frame of reference.
My belief is that ‘if-then’ motivation will not deliver world class service; i.e. if SLA is met you get paid, if you better the SLA, you collect a bonus, whereas if the SLA is breached, there is a penalty.

Placing the business impact first
SLAs are typically calculated on statistical data which fails to recognize business impact when the service is deficient. Creating complex SLAs that factor in all types of exception conditions makes it readable and enforceable only by lawyers and not CIOs.
An SLA should illustrate the intent of partnership between the two (or more) parties. Incremental innovation or improvements are expected as much as occasional failures that could be for any of the reasons listed above. Both parties need to work together towards ensuring that they understand the root causes and work towards prevention of repeated adverse impact.
Unfortunately, such behavior is rarely seen and everyone invests significant resources towards the scripting of a document that covers all bases. End result is that the parties involved split hairs with irrational discussions thereby leaving the spirit of partnership aside. Most successful relationships are based on simple few page documents that capture the intent with the managements investing time in frequent reviews not just when things go wrong, but when they are working too.
Over the years it has been a difficult journey on this path, but it has been worth the effort. The big companies (customer as well as provider) have however yet to learn.

March 22, 2011  2:37 AM

Industry awards for ICT vendors

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I had the privileged invite to judge ICT vendors; from a respected enterprise that gives away awards every year. This was their first attempt to form a jury to decide the awards. Earlier years the awards were decided based on size, growth, market share, and in some cases new innovations added during the previous year.

The number of award categories had grown over the years from a handful to more than double score. Thus multiple juries consisting of senior CIOs were appointed and the task was split.

Absence of customer-inputs

We got started with the understanding of categories we were to judge and the time allocated for discussions of each award. Everyone agreed and we jumped onto the first category. The nominated and shortlisted names were not a surprise.

But as we started to scratch the surface, the question came up “where is the customer dimension? How can we assess the relative merits of performance without the voice of customer?” It was evident and confirmed that over the years there was no thought given to this aspect in deciding the winner. The sound logic stated that size and/or growth demonstrate customer confidence.

The jury did not bite that. Sometimes size is a function of regulatory play, incumbency factor or better marketing machinery. Progressing through the categories, the debates took many hues; at times the shortlisted vendors were not perceived to be market leaders or worthy of an award.

In some the selection criteria of the nominations made it appear that the award was pre-decided; the deliberations had the jury wondering if these were sponsored awards being played out to gain respectability.

Truth Vs. marketing babble

Not too long ago a CIO had used social media to highlight the farce behind one of the industry awards for CIOs. In the world of scams, anything is possible. Over lunch the discussion did veer to this doubt. We were animatedly appeased by the organizers that such was not the case. They acknowledged the shortfall in data and that some criteria needed amends.

CIOs listening to vendor pitches and presentations tend to believe awards cited by the vendor. They purportedly validate the technology, solution, or service as it is assumed that experts indeed evaluated objectively across formal KPIs that matter. A few dazzling awards may appear alien but are rarely challenged. If an exotic niche publication conferred the award, so be it. Micro-segmentation works to serve a purpose. Ho hum!

Importance of being prudent

Sticking to what matters to the business is always a good starting point while selecting any vendor. The other important factors include, and not limited to, cultural alignment, success in solving similar problems, industry/ domain focus, long-term development strategy, apart from size, growth, and the awards they have accumulated.

If you are an early adopter of technology, seek safeguard that shares the risk/ reward. For others, nothing works better than peer reference, i.e. talking to existing customers.

Back to the awards, we the jury were aghast at the invisible customer angle. The high point of the day spent was a category that was denied an award in the context presented and one that got away was a lone nomination to a category that at best had a start-up as a challenger.

So next time a vendor puts up a slide or gives you a brochure with glitzy photos of awards, acknowledge them, but do remember to exercise your right to references with or without the help from the vendor.


March 15, 2011  5:01 AM

The fad and necessity of the latest versions

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

“Apple announces iPad 2 with better, faster, newer ….. Bargains available on earlier version.”

“When software vendors continue to create new versions of every solution, there is pressure on us to stay with current versions; how do we manage such a paradigm with budget constraints?”

The first is news that everyone saw and reacted to depending on their reference point with the much coveted tablet computer that is a must have on many lists. Some queued up to get the new device last weekend, while others decided to capitalize on the available bargains on the earlier version. Few competing tablet manufacturers wondered on how they can keep pace.

The second was a question from an SME (small and medium enterprise) CEO to a panel of big enterprise CIOs in a seminar organized by one of the large office automation, unified communication, and collaboration solution vendor for the mid-market customers. Majority of the audience nodded to the question as if they all faced the same predicament and did not know how to resolve the situation.

Vanity Fair

There appears to be an inherent desire amongst us to crave the latest version of gadgets or software similar to the desires to keep up with the latest trends in fashion that vanity demands. The technology vanity also permeates organizations; after all the same individuals pride themselves flaunting the latest must have phone, music player, and camera, whatever.

Organizations can ill afford such a race and the break point has a direct correlation to the profitability of the enterprise and the contributions of the IT function. The enamoured CEO and CIO will also cite examples of how and why it matters and the benefit thereof to the business, customers, and off course themselves.

When this is weighed against the basic rules of conducting prudent business with rationale investments filtered using good governance rules, the decision shifts to what matters. Every organization has a set of rules for financial investments; these measure the results and provide a framework that applies in most cases to every decision. However, IT sometimes escapes this rigor with justifications ranging from necessity for security to lack of support on older versions, fear of obsolescence and many in between. In absence of tools to validate or ignorance, and the incessant push from the vendors, the SME customer faces devil’s choice.

Being prudent

Irrespective of size and compulsions driven by technology vanity, vendor threats, competitive scares, boardroom chatter, or peer pressure, the rules of good investment decisions should always stay in the forefront. My answer to the question from the CEO was, “We still think like the SME we were in the past. Every investment has to answer the following questions: Does it help the customer, employee, or shareholders? Does it create a new capability we require to differentiate? Is it required by law? If none applies, then the investment is not undertaken.

But then the thirst for the latest is irrational. We have become participants to a mega race to acquire the next. There is no justifying the next version of laptop with the latest processor, nor any rationale for the next zillion megapixel camera. Why do we need the latest version of communicator or the micro-app on our phone? I think the simple answer is because it is there!


March 8, 2011  9:28 AM

Offsite meetings

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Every leader at some time seeks to engage the team in thematic exercises that are personified as offsite or outbound programs. Most of these are facilitated by external trainers who engage the team in field or classroom exercises. Typically such events spread over 1-3 days in out of city resorts where the external environment entices the participants while they struggle with the agenda and expectations. Almost everyone looks forward to such a sojourn from day-to-day work.

Over the years I have attended and conducted over a dozen such programs with teams―large and small―across organization layers. All of them were great experiences and opened up a new line of thought, provoking some action or reaction with me as well as other participants. Many companies conduct these annually by department or sometimes horizontally taking layers of management for team building, bonding and improvement of cross-functional dynamics.

In the last outbound program one of the participants posed a question to the moderator, how can we ensure that the learning from this program stay with us and bring about positive change? The volatility of learning defies expectation and evaporates by the time everyone reports back to their workplaces. Nonetheless this does not deter teams, companies and trainers world over from conducting such programs. The moderator promised to revisit the question before close of the program.

CIOs probably manage the most diverse teams with skills and competencies that are specialized in their own right. Be it infrastructure which can be subdivided into network, servers, data centers, or core application stacks that require technical, functional and architectural expertise; all of this and more form a typical IT team. Each professional equipped with ‘professional arrogance’ believes s/he is unique and better than the other. For the enterprise to function cohesively, these teams have to work in tandem like the machinery in a shop floor lest production come to a standstill.

The siloed nature of teams creates friction as well as competitive spirit that require the CIO to balance internal expectations with the expectations of the business leaders and customers. Outbound and offsite meetings thus serve an important purpose of breaking the ice, bringing together the teams even if for a short while, and provide a platform for exploration of themes that bring success to the team. It is foolhardy to expect everyone to create the same level of benefit for themselves; if some of them find their change agent, the event has served a purpose. It’s analogous to a classroom where all the students listen to the same teacher but hear differently.

Coming back to the moderator of the last outbound, in the final session, he said, “I am sure you liked parts of the program, participation level was great. I had nothing to give to all of you; it’s for you to decide what you want to take back.” Well said indeed, because no one can ensure what you take away from any program, discussion or stuff that you read; it’s a choice the participant makes based on his/her presence, participation (or lack of it), fiddling with the phone, or side talk.

On another note, Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing―that’s why we recommend it daily.”


March 1, 2011  8:49 AM

Intuitive analytics

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It was a packed house listening to a panel discussion between two CIOs, a CEO, a vendor and an academician. After almost an hour of discussion on various aspects of business intelligence challenges and opportunities, the session end requested final words on what they would like to see from vendors in the future? Leaving aside the Oscar-ian twist on being good to customers, better decision making and paying more attention to talent, the crowd applauded unanimously to the CIOs’ wish list. The CIO representing a ‘mature’ user of solutions from the sponsor BI vendor, made a passionate appeal:

Has anyone in the audience attended a training program on how to use Facebook, or any other website or messaging system? If no, then why do we require everyone even with above average intelligence in the corporate world to be provided training on usage of internal systems? What makes these systems so complex that they cannot be used without hand-holding?

I wish that we can all evolve to a level of BI/DW tools such that any user within the enterprise can start using transactional data to convert to information that can assist informed decision making. Anyone who can use a spreadsheet should be able to extract the insights hidden within the sea of information. They should be able to intuitively understand what is expected from them to get to the next step with no prompting or help (online or otherwise). I am talking about Intuitive Analytics, a term coined by me a while back to refer to analytics that is intuitive in its interface; intuitive to the user the way s/he is able to open the browser on the PC, Smartphone or tablet and start the journey of discovery on the Internet.

In recent times there have been multiple initiatives around improvement of how information is presented to the consumers. Evolution from rows and columns to dashboards, drill-downs, pivots, multi-dimensional analytics has evolved; the evolution of mathematical models as well as technological advances on speed of crunching data have pushed the boundaries across enterprise data warehouse projects. Over the last three years, DW/BI has consistently been in the top 3 technology and business priorities.

The experiences are, however, inconsistent in their delivery of business value. Some of the barriers include data quality, data model deficiencies, bad ETLs to name a few. The biggest deterrent, however, has been the complex user experience which has seen lesser evolution as compared to the technological advances. All tools with no notable exception provide the basic building blocks to create the DW/BI foundation and analytical layer, standard templates. The internal IT teams and implementation partners have yet to breakout from the mold to provide a rich, consistent, and meaningful capability to the end consumer of information.

I believe that this is an opportunity for one and all, CIO, DW Architects, vendors, implementation partners, to take up this challenge on making BI as easy as getting on any social media site and get started. If you have already crossed this bridge, do write back, but the applause on the floor to my comments, makes me believe that the journey is still more like an uncharted expedition.


February 22, 2011  8:48 AM

Retiring CIOs

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Recent months have seen quite a few CIOs retiring; many of them started their careers a really long time back, growing from technical beginnings and successfully transitioning from the role of EDP Manager to a CIO over more than last 3 decades. The next few years will see many more ready to handover to the next generation of younger aspirants. The subject of succession planning suddenly comes to fore raising questions where the transition had some impact on the organization. We discussed that some time back in “Succession Planning for the CIO”.

So what do retiring CIOs do ? Do they just fade away from the limelight gradually or in a jiffy just like that as if someone pulled the plug and in an instant from the next day there is a blackout? Or there are opportunities they can pursue to continue adding value to enterprises, younger CIOs, academia, may be consulting? Probably all of this and a lot more; what are the options a CIO can pursue after putting in 30+ years into the industry ? Should we just let go of the rich experience?

Almost 8 years back, I met a retiring CIO from within the CIOs I knew, a few months before his D-day. The conversation naturally veered towards plans post retirement. His face lit up as he talked about his plans post retirement from the 9-6 grind as he described his passion and involvement in a NGO close to his home town to contribute to the education of the underprivileged. There was obviously a clear vision of the future and that had nothing to do with his current role in a large Pharma company.

Beginning of last year, I came across a surprise New Year message from a CIO who had disappeared from the scene quietly and no one had a clue where he might me. He was running a small consulting organization focusing on specific technology and domain thus working with a few customers providing them with the insights gained from his experience. It became evident that he had planned for this day and was satisfied with the continued usefulness and revenue it generated.

Then there are many who pursued academic interests joining institutes as full or part time faculty; some decided to become freelancers on specific subjects like ITIL, COBIT, etc, which require experienced hands to bring out the context for the students by relating instances and anecdotes from experience.

Retirement is another phase of life which requires planning and preparation; you cannot stumble upon these opportunities after reaching the milestone which says “Stop”. It’s almost like a new job; except, in this case, there is no formal job (there are exceptions where CIOs have continued as consultants in the same company or joined other enterprises); but the accountability is to self first and then to the task.

The ranks of the new age CIO are raring to go with new skill sets for the new era of computing with a fabric of social media and clouds linking these across the ecosystem internally and externally. They are ready to challenge the grey hair with less technology, more business, and say what matters, effectively. If you are contemplating retirement in the next 5 years, if you have not yet started, get started now!


February 15, 2011  3:01 AM

Do you sleep well?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It was a gathering of 80 odd international CIOs from the customers of a mid-sized IT company. The keynote speaker’s industry experience was larger than the age of almost all the participants. This giant towered over the CIOs reflecting on his vast experience and how he witnessed the role of the CIO changing with time, accelerating in the last decade. I was enjoying the learning interspersed with anecdotes. One question had everyone nodding and agreeing except a lone figure who disagreed. The question was, “Do you sleep well or are running from one fire to another 24 x 7?”

He did not pass judgment on the crowd magnanimously except as one being busy with no respite. He sympathized with the majority seeking the causes of their misery. The murmur rose to a buzz citing various operational reasons including data inconsistencies, network outages, backup failures, and many more that kept them from the forty winks mandated by the Doctor. The crescendo unanimously in one voice cried the expectation to respond to the next message on their hand-held.

The grand old man trundled down the aisles whispering to some, nodding at others, patting a few, creating a wonderful sense of unity cutting across ages, cultures, geographies, and industries. It was like a universal global malady to which research has failed to find a cure. The binding complete, he turned around to the solitaire CIO, quavering finger pointing at his bewildered face and thundered, “Young man, what do you do differently that puts you above all?”

“I pass it on to others, I delegate!” Nothing dramatic, no magic formula, simple plain old fashioned delegation; the CIO went on to explain how he helps his team run with operations as well as projects. He empowered his team to take decisions, reporting back frequently on progress made, plans for the next fortnight, challenges faced and overcome, escalations that needed attention. He engaged the team in regular meetings to discuss this and new opportunities. The audience resonated, “All this sounds like what all of us do every day!”

The difference is in giving up the control rather than holding on to the umbilical cord. Effective delegation requires the responsibility and accountability to be with the team; they have the freedom to take decisions, make mistakes (hopefully not too many) with the coaching and mentoring of the leader. If they have to seek permission for every step or decision from the CIO, that is not delegation.

Autonomy comes at a price, but also offers reward of time to the leader. S/he can focus on what matters long-term while the tactical is managed by the team. A word of caution though, delegation is not abdication of responsibility, because when things go wrong and there is an adverse impact to the business, the CIO is finally accountable for the actions of the team and the outcomes.

The question to you is “Would you like to join the lone figure in the crowd?”


February 8, 2011  5:29 AM

CIO Resume: Part II

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A few weeks back I had written about my tryst with a CIO struggling to create a resume that would evince interest from headhunters, executive placement, or companies looking for one. After an unsuccessful struggle attempting to advise her to illustrate the business benefits of her interventions, I finally invited her over to collaboratively create a document that may interest someone looking for a CIO.

Together reading through the resume, I noticed she was passionate about her achievements and the impact they created, but had no words in her vocabulary to transform the bullets into business impact. So I decided to indulge in some role play and asked her to be the CEO of a company who wants to hire a CIO and read the document again. Every few minutes I stopped her to observe if it meant anything to the CEO. Her Oh I See moment stretched through until the second reading!

Take an example “16 years of experience in deployment of technology projects“, changing to “16 years of aligning business and IT consistently delivering to promise” or for that matter “Implemented FICO, SD, PP, MM, HR modules ….” which was replaced by “Optimized processes and improved business efficiency by up to 30% …., driven by SAP implementation”. The entire document underwent clinical surgery over two hours with the promise of post operative care to reduce the overall size to fewer than four pages, shedding almost 40% irrelevant content.

Everyone has a story to tell, but the story needs to catch the attention of the reader in the first 200 words or so. The risk of a boring or unintelligible document is real when the supply is higher than the demand. A large volume is less likely to be read compared to a concise one. Cater to the targeted audience and not a generic one. Research the target organization and change accordingly is a great way to at least make it to the shortlist. Talk to common friends or vendors if you are able to.

So is there an ideal format for a CIO resume, structure, content, layout? The answer is no, everyone is unique and has a different story to tell with their background, industries worked for, technologies deployed, and contributions made. Make sure that your headlines attract attention; the text that follows has conviction in what it portrays.

Finally, I think that what really matters is how you have contributed to the enterprise growth or savings, impacted customers (internal or external), what kind of influence you have within the industry you work for, the teams you have managed, the geographies and cultures that you understand, and contributions towards success of your peers. Isn’t this what a CIO or for that matter any CXO anyway expected to do?

Read CIO Resume: Part I


February 1, 2011  9:41 AM

CIO appraisals

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A few weeks back, I met a CIO who was feeling elated post his annual appraisal with the local and global bosses. He had reason enough to be proud for the ratings received—expansion of role and monetary benefit (of course). I also had to deal with a CIO who took a long time raving about the injustice meted to him by the organization which does not seem to get IT. Two extremes, and I’m sure that there are many experiences that fall in between.

Every year with certainty like the taxes, every individual dreads, anticipates, is indifferent, or resigns to the annual appraisal. The emotion varies depending on multiple factors, including but not limited, by past experience, organization culture, boss relationship, team, industry, and in many cases individual performance. Appraisals have always been debated on fairness, appraiser bias (positive or negative), as well as the bell curves to which they are expected to fit.

How does the CIO get appraised? What can he do to ensure that the dialogue is fair, the feedback constructive, and reward/recognition aligned to defined metrics and the overall performance of the IT team? Should these aspects be engineered (read as politically managed) to ensure a favorable outcome? Is it that we always expect more than what is due to us?

Any process or relationship between a subordinate and his reporting manager that leaves the discussion to its anniversary is fraught with danger. The discussion will rarely be able to consider contributions through the period, since last few interactions or outcomes will assume top of mind recall. Thus the benefit of the good work done through the year may be tainted by a recent minor incident. We all fall into this trap as appraisers too, and to that extent it is unrealistic to expect a completely unbiased interaction.

Appraisal is a continuous process with reviews, discussions (formal or informal), communication by the appraisee (MS Word does not like this word) and feedback by the appraiser. The formal culmination of this is the period based appraisal—typically bi-annual or annual, occasionally quarterly. One of the key tenets here is communication by the appraisee. Periodic updates and visibility of wins is critical towards building a reputation and mindshare. The CEO has to balance between all the functions similar to the way the CIO manages across differing expertise and IT domains.

Across functions, levels and CXOs, the best stories are always around measurable impact to the business, which can be communicated in unambiguous terms. This is non-debatable, and thereby provides a fact based discussion with the boss—even when he may be IT unfriendly or agnostic. The bell curve will take care of itself—you have that one meeting (similar to your job interview) to convince the appraiser, why you should continue to be where you are, or move up the ladder.

Maybe there is some merit in what Pythagoras said 2500 years back. “Rest satisfied with doing well, and leave others to talk of you as they please”


January 25, 2011  4:27 AM

Leadership is …

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Across two events over the last few weeks, I came across many CEOs and thought leaders who debated, discussed, and opined on the future state of the economy and what the industry can look forward to. There exists a general sense of optimism and expectation of a brighter tomorrow. A few mentions of the struggles that still remain in pockets, not to forget the lessons learnt in the last couple of years. But the highlight was the speech delivered by a third generation young family owned business entrepreneur.

He was speaking for the first time in public and that too in an event held outside his home country. After a hesitant start he warmed up to the subject which was the journey of the family business as the reigns are eased onto the new generation with the grandfather keeping a dictatorial but benevolent eye on the day to day affairs. Every generation starts from the bottom of the pyramid working their way up until the patriarch decides it’s time to move to the next level. As the story unfolded, the audience listened in rapt attention wondering how each generation has built upon the foundations laid six decades back with humble beginnings, now run by a large joint family of over 150 managing the enterprise successfully.

I could draw parallel to some incidents of the protagonist with our experiences with corporate behavior, complexity of the markets and the organization culture, as it shifted with each new leader entering the business. Swayed by the economic turmoil and political uncertainties, the company was buffeted in the waves up and down as if it had no direction of its own. Reflecting on my own experiences and the various case studies that came my way, life unfolded as if in slow motion reminding the lessons it left behind. The one tenet that was evident through the session was perseverant leadership that kept the family going through rough and smooth. Tough decisions taken resulted in many positive outcomes and a few that made the situation worse. What has all this got to do with the CIO?

To me the CIO leader faces such decision points a lot more frequently irrespective of whether s/he works in one industry/ company or across different ones, big or small, and agnostic of geography and lineage. The CEO is personified in the patriarch, occasionally benevolent when s/he is IT friendly, else indifferent or sometimes hostile. The CXOs pull in different directions like the family members with different priorities. Competition and the overall economy impact everyone and are thus similar in their effect.

Many IT leaders are rightly felicitated for success and contributions to the company; influencing industry trends with early adoption or innovative use of solutions. They take decisions which could potentially wreck a business function or create a setback in the short-term. Risk ability is a critical part of every leader’s armor and CIOs are expected to fail less often as compared to other business leaders.

CIOs who are able to manage across the journey are classified as successful and turnaround specialists while few suffer ignominy of the technology world. Leadership is after all a mindset and not a position. Like the grandfather, many CIOs are now well positioned to mentor fresh talent to take the mantle. But will they? That’s a story for another time.


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