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


October 24, 2010  11:14 PM

Communicating success, successfully

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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”.

October 19, 2010  5:56 AM

Padding up the enterprise

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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.


October 12, 2010  1:30 AM

Happy Birthday!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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.”


October 5, 2010  12:40 AM

Speeches at award ceremonies

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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.


September 27, 2010  8:00 AM

IT startups, due diligence, and the CIO

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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.


September 20, 2010  11:34 PM

Vendors just don’t get it

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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.


September 14, 2010  1:13 AM

Aspiring CIOs

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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”.


September 7, 2010  2:14 AM

CIO longevity and types of CIOs

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

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.


August 31, 2010  2:06 AM

CIO Trilogy: The last brick in the wall

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Recently, a respected publication’s edit piece on CIOs highlighted the enterprise’s changing expectations from a CIO. This insight was gleaned from “CIO wanted” advertisements as well as discussions with headhunters or executive search companies. Some of these headlines were on the lines of “CIO with ABC ERP implementation experience”, “Full lifecycle ERP experience is a must”, “Should have worked in discrete manufacturing”, and “Strategic CIO with operational experience reporting to CFO…”. The last one especially is a paradox!

After an oscillating experience between East Asian and Indian leaders on their perceptions of the CIO this month, changing expectations from the enterprise brings up an important question, “Is the CIO role changing subtly by taking a direction divergent from where current and future CIOs want to be?” Yet another passionate discussion revolved around enterprises hiring CIOs from outside the IT functions. This trend may be positive or negative based on your frame of reference.

Enterprises have faced challenges in the execution of large cross-functional (or high-end technology) projects. Many of these adversely impacted operations or delivered limited value commensurate to the effort. Some were possibly due to oversell by the IT organization which led to inflated expectations from these investments. However, a large number of these projects have observed no correlation to technology (as has been consistently reported by the Standish Group in their tracking of IT project success over a decade). Instead of technology, management involvement has remained the primary influencing factor in these projects. Even if it seems irrelevant at this point, the final buck for effective technology adoption stops with the CIO. Thus, this has given rise to the hypotheses that “forget the strategic part of IT, let’s get someone who can fix the operational pieces first”.

Outsourcing of the support services, changes in educational structure, and consumerization of IT has demystified the technology black box. The new workforce has grown up with technology. As a result, they are unafraid of exploring new frontiers that current set of leaders and managers in their 40s and 50s may not always be keen upon. With the continuous thrust on Business IT alignment (BITA) and many commentaries on “IT is too important for the enterprise to leave it to techies”, the new business leader is emerging from non-IT domains. More importantly, he is reasonably equipped to get started on the journey towards becoming a CIO.

The current generation of technology professionals (either CIOs or those moving towards the role) must pay heed to this new trend. As is evident, the minimal expectation is to ensure operational efficiency from all projects and meeting of baseline business expectations. Industry knowledge now supersedes technology expertise for the leader, but well rounded experience matters at the next level.

After all, if the enterprise continues to remain challenged on effective usage of technology for any reason, even if not attributable to the CIO, the role will be downgraded to the position of an operational IT manager reporting into the CFO.


August 24, 2010  2:49 AM

Another variation for the CIO!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Last week in my post OMG …, I wrote about a CIO perception that was probably the lowest that I have observed in so many years. That was the perception of those who labeled the CIO a CDO. It rankled for a while, as I tried to put that experience behind me. As a result, I was wary while getting into a discussion with a veteran leader and yet another politician a week later.

I came away pleasantly surprised from the experience.

At the annual event of a large software vendor (held with no sales pitch, presentation or brochures in your face), the invited dignitary presented a keynote that focused on the positive direction most economic indicators appears to project. The audience enjoyed this rollercoaster ride based on the vast experience (that promised more than it delivered); but then, an hour can only give so much. As he regaled everyone with anecdotes connecting the past to the future, the CIOs lapped up everything that came their way. And then began his narrative on IT.

Having led industries and media houses, the speaker talked about how his earlier companies used IT and increase in the pace of advances in technology as he grew older. Meetings with EDP and IT Heads merged with the evolution of the CIO–making it sound like the natural evolution that universally applied to this species called the Chief Information Officer. Then he turned to appeal to the audience–to give up this role and start imagining what the future can hold for them.

Almost like Isaac Asimov’s science fiction and Arthur C Clarke’s space odysseys, the CIO moved along this path made of dreams.

Déjà vu? Inception?

Dream within a dream, I pinched myself and so did a few others–wanting to wake up as if this was a dream, but hoping that it would never end. The words echoed and kept ringing much after I departed from the venue.

“Imagine what the world can be, what you can make it into, let your imagination soar as the spirit does. You all have the talent and the knowledge; make the world a better place with judicious use of technology like no other can. The world will know you as Chief Imagination Officers”.

The warmth in the room rendered the air conditioning ineffective, but no one was sweating. CIOs rewarded the speaker with applause and the questions that followed had nothing to do with technology and kept the speaker thinking while acknowledging that the CIOs have a lot more than technology on their minds.

Gratified with this experience, I walked away comparing the contrast in experience from elsewhere in Asia to India, and that reinforced the generally accepted view that the Indian industry adoption of IT and the general management maturity contributes to higher success rates and growth for the CIO. I like the way it sounds–“Chief Imagination Officer”.

After I finished writing this piece, I read an edit in a respected IT magazine’s recent issue which wondered why the industry seeks IT specialists while labeling them a CIO? But that is another story.


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