In a few weeks, It will be that time of the year when everyone starts creating lists — of priorities, challenges, opportunities (which hopefully also get budgets allocated), new technologies, and so on. Everyone from analysts, researchers, academics, CEOs, CIOs, publications and anyone who has an opinion contribute to the increasing top three, five, ten (or in some cases a random number) based on their comfort of things that are a must do, must watch for, avoid, don’t even think about it, failures, every possible happening, news, people, the list is endless. I am tired …
A lot of these are thought up while on the keyboard, some have inane research to justify, a few are meaningful too. CIOs and IT folks love these, and watch them like religion. Or hate and ignore them because the lists only add to the existing chaos. Adding to these is a set that creates lists for internal and/or external consumption.
Over the years, I tracked lists from major IT research houses and publishing companies to ascertain their alignment with what I planned to do. Like with every list (and that applies to horoscopes too), I found that the alignment varied from 10% to 80%. If you put together a list of current buzzwords, hype curve technologies, magic quadrants, waves, or similar research, you are bound to get a few that will resonate with the personal and corporate agenda.
Now the differences are always explained in context of industry, geography, size of company, maturity in the IT adoption curve; you could also include sun spots, solar or lunar eclipses, global warming, or any other metrics that you can think of. So why does everyone continue to invest significant resources, time and manpower towards the creation of such lists? My belief is that they need to pin up something on their (and others) soft boards, put in presentations, or just publish them for others to marvel at.
Reality is that the lists created by surveys and research are self-fulfilling, based on the asked questions. If a list (of say 10 items) is presented and the respondents are asked to prioritize them, that’s what you will get. Rarely does anyone ask for respondents to fill in 10 blank rows with what their priorities may be. That would be chaotic and statistically not tenable in a report, but would make interesting reading.
So here is my list of lists that I do not wish to see in 2011.
1. Top 3,5,10 priorities/opportunities for the CIO/IT organization
2. Top 10 technologies to watch out for
3. Top (pick a number) business priorities/challenges
4. Top (pick a number) challenges for the CIO/IT organization
If you have any others, do put in your comments. If you love the lists, enjoy them, or if you are cynical of them, join the party. However, if you are indifferent about these and have achieved a nirvana state, can I enroll as your student?
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.
There is an old Hindi song “The peacock danced in the jungle, who saw it ?”; no one is the wise answer. Now what has this got to do with the CIO and the IT organization ? A lot !
IT is one of those functions whose absence is felt a lot more than its presence. Whether it is a simple email or internet access outage or the impact felt on the enterprise users when billing fails, or an invoice does not get created or printed. The ripples across the organization can be heard louder than the thunder on a wild stormy and rainy day. And what about small incremental development or changes that IT delivers everyday helping the business do some activity or task better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently ? Do these get to the eye (or ear) of the management teams ?
CIOs and IT organizations do a good job of communicating big project kick-offs with a lot of fanfare; the project plans and progress is tracked on some dashboard or report at regular frequencies. They are discussed in management review meetings and focus on timeliness or budget depending on the progress report. User and IT teams debate functionality within the review and steering committee meetings which typically see senior management participation wane as the project progresses. Other priorities take precedence and the resolution of conflicts or issues is left to the project team comprising of a few IT folks, vendor representatives and middle management users present as they are nominated to the project.
If all goes well even with some timeline or budget overrun, the project go live calls for some back patting, an email from the CXO (could be the CIO too) to announce that we are now operational with the new system. In rare cases the Post Implementation Review is conducted by the users or the CIO to validate the base case and benefit if any.
Now the IT organization apart from managing the operations also contributes continuous improvements to the small and large systems working with various internal functions and vendors (hardware, software, development partners, etc.) to address the ever changing needs driven by market forces, internal changes, or sometimes by customers. Many of these could be changes that create significant internal or external impact, but they are rarely on any report or dashboard, leave alone corporate announcements. These typically take away almost 30-40% (figures may vary by company and industry) of the total IT resources. They are deployed and forgotten, moving on to address the never ending pipeline of work.
CIOs should communicate these across levels to demonstrate the benefit, new or improved capability, cost reduction or avoidance they have enabled. To sustain the message of IT enabled sustained enterprise advantage, it is imperative that the users or the IT organization create the visibility. The beauty of the peacock with its feathers in a symmetric formation is to be cherished and enjoyed. If no one knows about it then “IT does not matter”.
Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a handful of global CIOs from Korea, Japan, Germany, India, USA and a few others. It centered on the pains, acceptance and way forward on the much flashed about computing device — across all seminars, airports, lobbies and any other place that you want to be seen with it. It has created a range of wannabe devices, been written about by every type of media, physical, internet, business magazines, newspapers, leisure, technology … Sigh, you get the point? I am referring to the Apple iPad.
The iPad has taken the IT world by surprise. It started off as a consumer device, and stormed into the corporate world — taking the CIOs literally on the wrong foot, just as they were getting comfortable with the iPhone. A CIO recounted the story of his team being given the task to connect a new shiny device to the corporate network; when no one had ever seen such a contraption. While the IT team was able to get it onto the corporate network within the stipulated 30 minutes (an unreasonable demand from the Chairman’s son), others have not been so fortunate, and have later discovered employees happily connecting to the WiFi network.
Driven from the top, the iPad has infiltrated every organization, giving a hard time to many CIOs. Sales and marketing organizations are creating business cases for deployment, while the evolving market is pushing newer competing devices. The applications landscape is catching up fast with enterprise software vendors getting there. Although challenges around security exist, new opportunities are vying to offer game changing business propositions that did not exist earlier.
The convenience of this tablet device scores over the conventional laptop, but is a long way before it replaces it totally. As manufacturers experiment with the form factor and features, one thing is certain — the iPad or equivalent is here to stay. Globally, the iPad has been successful in Pharmaceutical industry for detailing. Market researchers now use it for interactive discussions, even as it becomes a convenient add-on to the CXO, and an alternative to e-book readers, amongst others.
CIOs should move into proactive mode to embrace the inevitability of tablet computers within the enterprise. It is time to redesign processes with the new device — rather than replace current devices for existing processes — as the benefits may not be worth the effort. The iPad is disruptive technology, and thus deserves different treatment. Challenge the enterprise across layers to explore how it can create new possibilities that did not exist before.
The global CIOs without exception agreed that they have to deal with this surge. Some are approaching it using policy, while others are taking it head on. So don’t wait around to get beaten up by the business, as it may just bypass IT to serve their quest for innovation.
Many moons back, this column was conceptualized based on the intermittent musings posted on Oh I See. It has evolved with feedback from readers and critics in equal measure who keep providing me with feedback, headlines and thoughts that can be converted into a column. The weekly frequency has settled down to a couple of hours over the weekend — after many hours during the week has been consumed in figuring out what matters — amongst the many wanting attention.
CEOs, CIOs, students, techies and business readers have written back with their views; some in agreement, a few in disagreements. I learned different perspectives from both — views that added to the richness that I consume and try to disseminate across this column. The Gonzo approach (a la Hunter Thompson) to Oh I See appears to bring out the warts, moles and at the same time, airbrushed images that attempt to make them palatable. Until a few weeks back, I was ignorant of this branding, until it was pointed out by the editor at TechTarget. I am simultaneously suitably impressed and humbled.
Celebrating a year of Oh I See and reflecting back on the various topics that were brought up, discussed, debated, challenged, analyzed, I hope that you would have gained something; a laugh, a connect to the CIO reality. If nothing else, it’s a smile or a frown — hopefully not a grimace. But if your reaction was indeed extreme, did it stimulate you enough to write back? And if not, then you better do it the next time.
Last week was great. I managed to catch up with some old colleagues whom I had mentored. It was heartening to see them achieve new peaks in their career. The event that brought us together from different parts of the world was better than most, since it had limited product pitches (which were relegated to one-on-one meetings, though some did escape). The learning was indeed that irrespective of geography or industry (specific and additional challenges could be regulatory), experiences across the globe seem to mirror each other with fair consistency. Similar challenges and opportunities observed during discussions with peers from China, Japan, and other countries reinforced the belief that the human factor overrides all other forces.
Is there a Holy Grail for the CIO that can overcome the nemesis of IT? Something that manifests itself as one or more of “Alignment”, “Change Management”, “Budget pressures”, and “People issues”.… Someday, I hope to find the illusive mantra that CIOs can universally apply under most situations to overpower Medusa.
Back to Oh I See and the journey through the year, I hope the coming year will have a lot more to discuss and write about. Amongst the feedback, my favorite quote comes from someone who aspires to be a CIO. “I don’t need to read books or take management training from any business school any more. Your regular articles on different sites like STL center, Oh I See, IT Next, etc are enough to fill all the required skills and capabilities in me to get and justify with the position like CIO /Head IT.”
All of us have seen award ceremonies like Oscars or Grammies (on television or live). Some would have also received awards — usually followed by the award winner being asked to say a few words. Almost all of them sound like clichés, since they follow a predictable pattern.
Recent times have seen a number of awards (for the CIO and the next level) competing for the participants’ attention. Some of them have become prestigious and much vied for by the CIOs, while a few have lost their credibility — largely for want of effective communication and process management. Thus, CIOs have now started to choose between the awards that matter to them, and those that don’t. The natural selection process has thus differentiated the ‘Oscars’ from ‘me too’ awards.
Initial years saw the awkward CIOs on stage, as they tried to be graceful in their acceptance speeches. With time, they grew adept at being on stage. This also meant that the speeches became a lot more predictable. “I would like to thank my team, my boss, my users …” it could have been any award, CIO, or company, but the same spiel. After the ceremony, it was back to business as usual, with the accompanying cribs.
In 2009, I found changes. In one of the award ceremonies, the CIO was accompanied by his CEO to collect the award. The CEO stood alongside the CIO accepting the award — sharing the joy — telling the world at large about how the awarded IT initiatives transformed his organization. It was indeed inspirational to the recipient, as well as the audience.
Last week, I attended two award ceremonies, where the number of other CXOs made it a very different story. The CEO and CIO jostled on stage for airtime, and collaborated to tell their success story. Gone were the usual “thank you” messages, which were now replaced by what has changed for the enterprise, employees and customers. It was about revenue generation and profitability.
Reflecting on this change, it is evident that the CIO has evolved into an equal business leader who is not enamored by technology. He is self assured, confident of himself, and is able to hold his head high, while acknowledging the success of initiatives taken or supported by the IT team. I get this warm and fuzzy feeling as I hope that the future will bring better tidings for CIOs — not just in IT awards, but other CXO award categories.
P.S.: One of the CXOs in my organization pronounced that we now need a separate wall for all the IT awards we are rightfully getting. I turned the air conditioning to chill.
Every CIO gets many calls from startup IT companies wanting to bounce their million dollar idea—to seek the CIO’s advice and understand whether it makes sense in the enterprise. Some of these are self-funded, while a few may have angel investors or private equity already in place for growth. The steady growth of such small startups in the recent past has created an interesting problem for the CIO. Why is it a problem?
In quite a few cases, there is not much to differentiate one startup from the other. So how does the CIO separate the chalk from cheese? What is the due diligence required before getting these vendors on board?
A majority of these startups are seeded in institutes like IIT and IIM (globally pertinent equivalents may be the Silicon Valley or MIT kind of institutes), where the idea takes shape fuelled by the entrepreneurial bug. Most such ideas take a while before they gain traction with their target audience. These are the real gems, and being an early adopter of such startups provides an immense advantage.
Having worked with a few such companies, I realize that it does take a lot of effort to get the product/service aligned to enterprise processes and direction. As the first or amongst the first few customers, the value proposition is almost always attractive. Their reference checks largely depend on their mentors (professors or others) who are able to provide the details behind their continued support to the new entity.
The second category of startups comprises breakaway groups from existing companies, where a group of people have decided that their ideas have higher value than what they currently see within a large entity. This group typically specializes in services for a specific technology, domain or application. Such companies do well to begin with as they are patronized by existing customers (supported by them) who see a price advantage with a smaller startup. Such entities pass the tipping point within 12-18 months by either reaching a steady state, or falling apart. The due diligence is thus largely dependent on the team’s leader and its past track record as they continue to offer similar services.
A variant of the second category is a group being lured by an investor who believes that unlocking the potential has good upside for everyone. The service offering is thus no different from the above. A private equity institutional player invests in existing entities that needs funds to scale up or laterally, but in this case the carving out was initiated by the investor. How does one ensure that the entity will survive and make it to the tipping point? The team comes with impeccable credentials; the unknown factor is the investor who may pull the plug. In such a case, it is critical to conduct diligence on the investor and his past track record. Search engines come to your rescue in such cases, as past footprints cannot be obliterated.
Either way, put in safeguards to protect your enterprise’s interests with financial, legal or even escrow accounts to address sudden disruption. Work with your legal team for once, ask all the questions even if they make the other queasy; at least you will be able to sleep with ease.
I met the CEO of a global market leading hardware and services vendor recently – he’s from an organization which has been engaged with us for many years. He was earnestly seeking customer feedback on how is his company contributes to the success of customers and what is required to sustain or improve the mutual value. My submission to him was that all is well and hunky dory; we think of their company when we needed something. Once the transaction is over, the Account Manager as well as my team part ways until the next requirement comes up.
As a purely transactional arrangement, this works well, but many other value added opportunities get missed as this vendor is not our first recall. The CEO was aghast and promised to remedy the situation quickly through a strategic meeting with solution heads and domain experts; this was to be repeated every quarter, or on demand.
Six months passed, and nothing happened. Another chance meeting, and this time the CEO turned crimson on hearing the progress. In the interim, some more business went to their competitors. The chastised managers began the chase attempting to fix this meeting, which materialized after another three weeks. Time requested and granted — 1½ hours, scheduled start 2:30 PM.
D-day arrived, and this is how events unfolded:
2:30 PM came and went with no sign of the delegation; No call, no SMS, nothing. The audience comprising of the CIO and a few General Managers waited with some concern and amusement.
3:00 PM: Account Manager turns up. After 10 minutes, the second person ambles along. Meeting starts at 3:15 with a presentation on how the vendor sees the current market. They shared their beliefs about our challenges, and thus the opportunities for engagement. He talked about services that we have tried unsuccessfully with the vendor as the key unique selling points.
3:30 PM: The Sales head joins the meeting while the discussion was on an organizational matrix—a model that would support us in the collective quest to take engagement to the next level. As we started tabling issues, the vendor team had reasons for all that had nothing to do with them. An ERP upgrade, change in account managers, shift of support personnel, I am sure you get the point. But there were only fleeting regrets that they did not update us on open issues or orders despite multiple reminders.
3:45 PM: “What are your priorities and projects for the next 12 months?” and we quipped “To explore new and alternative vendors”. My colleague whispers that this meeting is worth a mention on Oh I See. Saving grace for them came in the form of an urgent phone interruption.
4:00 PM: The reception announces arrival of the last person who was to join the meeting. I get up and walk out of the meeting.
I wonder whether the vendor realizes what they (did not) achieve with the strategic meeting scheduled by their CEO with intent to enhance business with our company. Why does the IT vendor fraternity not teach its sales force to listen, engage, empathize and show some patience – the four tenets of retaining your customers? All of them (except a handful) are interested in talking, or presenting the great slides provided by their local or global HQ with inane survey data that normally has no connect in the local dynamics of business. Like every other business, retaining customers is all about creating a differentiated experience, unless you always compete on price.
Last week, I was invited to speak to a gathering of IT Managers (CIO aspirants). The subject was of course “How to become a CIO”. With some confusion on the start time of my presentation, the audience had almost 30 minutes of waiting time, but in their desire to pick up some tips and tricks, they patiently waited for the session to begin. As I entered the room, the expectation written on the audience’s faces brought butterflies in my stomach.
The agenda included: timeframe to make the grade, domain versus technology expertise, degrees and qualifications, soft skills, management challenges and opportunities, managing teams, all the qualities that matter and what to watch out for. I decided not to use the standard slide presentations with bullets, process diagrams et al, or the usual stuff that most presentations are made up of. The idea was to engage the audience, and engage they did. With 40 minutes allotted, the hour passed quickly without realizing it–the questions took away another half.
Today’s aspiring IT Managers are well aware of the challenges faced by the CIO; they shadow their bosses. They learn by observation and try to understand the intricacies and finer nuances. The only thing that they lack is a playground to test themselves and a coach to hone their skills. It was refreshing to see the young talent raring to go, waiting for an opportunity to knock. Many are abreast with financial skills and also aware of how to justify hard numbers in the enterprise quest for ROI. Finally, the importance of networking and challenging status quo makes the well rounded personality that creates success.
Succession planning for the CIO creates a platform for the next level to demonstrate their acumen. Learning is real on the battleground; no amount of theory can substitute real experience. Mature CIOs are today working towards nurturing their teams to challenge them; this was evident in the post event networking where some CIOs of the IT Managers joined in. It was heartening to see the connect between these leaders and the potential leaders of tomorrow. As the current lot of CIOs plan their retirement by 2020, the next generation has to be ready to take on the mantle by 2015.
My takeaway from the session was that the skills that worked for current CIOs are required even for the next generation. Apart from this, the new CIO will also have to keep his antenna tuned to new developments like the cloud and mobility, the latter being driven largely by consumerization of mobile devices.
The Q&A revealed existence of comfort zones in what the IT Managers do — be it technology or business process enablement. Now the challenge is to give us their comfort zones if they want to move to the next level. After all, “You must want to fly so much, that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar”.
My Sunday morning breakfast with a CIO proved to be quite an interesting discussion. He was wondering whether it is time to change now, since he will be completing almost five years in the current company. “Renewal is necessary to keep the learning going”, pronounced the person sitting across the table, as he mulled over his toast. It’s not that he was underperforming, or that the company had suddenly decided to defocus on IT spending. The diversified enterprise enjoyed healthy above market growth. It was recognized as a strong company on the leading curve of technology adoption. Curious, I dug more.
The CIO’s reminiscence of his journey proved to be very enriching and rewarding. Industry recognition and internal appreciation from across business units helped with continued investments and new initiatives. So there was no adverse impact in overall sentiment during 2008-2009’s difficult times. I could not uncover any recent or past incidents that may have even triggered the thoughts of movement to pastures unknown.
Global surveys generally indicate the CIO tenure to be between three to five years depending on industry, geography, and personality. There are some who move like clockwork every three to four years. Compulsions vary for most of them, while words imply, “no new challenges to address … or no new opportunities”. Analysis indicates the existence of a well defined pattern across these movements.
Now, I am not outlining the type who has spent over a decade in a company and done very well. They are a small breed, who are either cherished by their companies or work in public sector enterprises or equivalents (yes, there are many enterprises where the culture, urgency and behaviors are akin to a public sector enterprise). Nor am I including the IT Managers with CIO titles—people who are called upon (and indeed enjoy fixing) the board room’s faulty projector.
Many CIOs are recognized as successful leaders who specialize in implementation of ERP solutions. Once these missions are executed, their interest in sustenance or alternative solutions diminishes quickly. These are the ERP specialists who get into enterprises with struggling legacy systems. They are masters in the implementation of a specific ERP that brings some efficiency, who then move on. They are extremely useful to set a foundation of technology; average longevity is in the range of three years.
Another type of CIO flirts from company to company. He is able to communicate effectively hide his ineffectiveness with a choice of phrases and jargon. Thus he impresses upon the CEO why he is their man Friday. With strong political skills, such a CIO uses the three envelope process quite effectively to last anywhere from two to four years in the organization (depending on how political the company is). With little to demonstrate as delivery, their networking and communication skills save the day with amazing consistency.
The last category consists of CIOs who are aggressive, consistent, demanding, and articulate. They get in, transform, create the next line of leadership, and move on to the next challenge—typically achieving this within a three to five year timeframe. It dawned upon me that the person across the table was such a leader who had completed the wave of innovation. In the pause that came after addressing all the discussed challenges and opportunities, he had a crisis of “What next?” These leaders grow from strength to strength, are not tied to any industry or technology, and are truly business leaders who understand how to effectively leverage the tool.
As the discussion progressed, it was evident that the question was rhetorical. It’s just a matter of time before the CIO finds another large enterprise to host his quest for innovation.