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


March 18, 2013  12:27 PM

Inane CIO surveys

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

We are conducting a survey among the top CIOs on IT trends, data centre efficiency, Cloud computing adoption, business analytics, mobility, leadership, top 5/10 priorities, technology priorities, top 5/10 IT challenges, business challenges, social media adoption, big data, security, … phew! You name it and it is there; every day I get a couple of invites to participate in surveys with varying time indicated, from 5 minutes to an hour. They are run by all kinds of IT vendors, research companies and publications.

Surveys normally have MCQs (Multiple Choice Questions) or a matrix in which you select different options; some also want descriptive answers. Most of them end up taking twice as long to what they mention and what they would like you to believe. For example if a survey indicates that it will take no more than 10 minutes of your time, in all probability it will take 30 unless you are a speed reader. If you actually read all the text in the MCQ before you check/click your answers, then it may take longer!

Why do CIOs participate in these surveys? They are busy professionals with paucity of time; I think it is to put across their views and get to know what others think (most surveys promise to send the results to participants, 50% do so too). But nowadays they come with incentives attached; take the survey and you stand a chance to win your favourite gadget/device or a shopping site voucher or …. The incentive increases participation rates, gravely said one such surveyor; from 5% to about 20%.

The first page normally gets genuine thoughtful answers; then you hit a block with questions where answers don’t reflect your context or reality; there is no way to skip the question, you end up selecting a random option. Questions are constructed in a way that support what the surveyor wants the outcome to be. Soon you hit a complex grid or matrix where you are expected to balance options in a way that you select one option per row whether it matters to you or not. The more interesting ones are when you keep track of totals in a column across multiple columns.

That is when most respondents start randomly marking answers or rush through the pages. Any online survey or questionnaire that requires more than 5 minutes or has more than 10 MCQs tends to get into indifference zone. What you get is random responses or a middle path or a horizontal row of answers if the questions use a scale of 1-5 or 1-10. Many are kind and desert the survey mid-way rather than input garbage. Why are most surveys so painfully irritating and difficult to respond to?

You can now understand why most CIOs don’t agree with the results; because the input is rarely a reflection of reality of the participants. The responses appear to be from a different planet, the analysis bewildering, and the implications or actions disconnected from what makes sense. CIOs blame the outcome when they largely respond with indifference to surveys that seek their inputs on what matters to them. The starting point is the survey itself. So how to overcome this situation?

To begin with reduce the complexity of the information required. If you want a split of percentages across routers, switches, wireless, bandwidth, network management, which is a subset of hardware, which is a part of the infrastructure, then you will only get what you deserve. CIOs do not measure these, neither do IT Managers. Ask questions that can be answered without a calculator or the IT budget spread sheet which has numbers, not percentages. If I don’t do social media, then I need an option “Not Applicable” or let me simply skip the question.

Now I rarely participate in surveys and if I do where possible put in textual answers with my views. Surprisingly no one has as yet written or called me back despite having my email id or cell number. Do people really read the answers? Do they care about what is being said if their agenda or hypothesis is met? Maybe the surveys are just to say that we conducted a survey and keep the data aside to publish what you wanted to anyway.

March 11, 2013  7:55 AM

Politically correct

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I am beginning to discover new benefits of drinking wine; apart from being a social icebreaker with people discussing the merits of Merlot over Shiraz or the lineage of the grapes and the geography, it also opens up their heart with the cup of woes flowing over with gushing speeds. I was party to one such conversation with a well-known CIO who had scraped through challenging times and was drowning his sorrows in the red. And thus the saga unfolded.

He had joined a diversified conglomerate as the Group CIO; most of the companies within the group had mid-level IT heads who now reported to him. He was expected to bring synergies and efficiency across the companies while taking the IT agenda forward to the next level. The group itself had aspirations to grow manifold over the next 3-5 years and believed that IT can contribute to expediting the journey. Everything looked well set for the CIO to capitalize on and forge ahead.

The group had humble beginnings and had tasted success with some of the new ventures that brought it to prominence. Expanding global presence, the founders had begun to hire professionals to run individual businesses as well as leaders like the CIO to drive the corporate agenda. Collectively the team was tasked with bringing to life the strategy and goal. The recipe thus appeared to be what would achieve the stated objectives.

The seasoned CIO got started by meeting the business and functional leaders, understanding their key drivers and opportunities, and within a span of 30 days charted the IT agenda and roadmap. It had all the components of internal efficiency that could be gained with technology standardization as well as connected some of the initiatives with the external end customers. Commendable progress noted the family who owned the business.

The next 30 days had some of the initiatives getting off the ground with participation from business and IT stakeholders. The larger investments needed discussion and debate on the selection of solutions as well as partners who would deliver them. Everyone had a view on how they wanted to make the selection and everyone had an opinion on what should be prioritized. The CIO attempted to moderate expectations without success. And that is when things started going haywire.

Over the next 30 days the power struggle continued with no one wanting to give away, each holding their ground; the CIO in his righteousness and professional pride believed that he knew how to run with the critical projects. The business leaders believed that they knew the business best and the CIO should yield to them considering they have to finally deliver the business outcomes. The owners left it to the group to take a decision not wanting to be the arbitrator.

As the status quo continued for some time, patience wore thin and the level of exasperation grew; in the next quarterly business review meeting they orchestrated a show down. Most of them updated the respective family members of their discomfort and the decisions they were hoping would prevail. The CIO did not have this connect and neither did it cross his mind that he should work with the majority owners to achieve what he believed was the best outcome.

In a stormy meeting the CIO quoted from success within and outside the industry with his proposed solutions and why his path was the best way forward for everyone. The business leaders refuted the claim and chorused the CIO’s limited knowledge about the culture and business. The Chairman had to react and he did what was obvious; he took the path that the CEOs had advised him of rebutting and chastising the CIO for not listening to his customers.

The CIO had a devils choice; he could accept the verdict and get started or he could refuse to bow to the decision and move on. His stand had created a deadlock; his abrupt manner and straight talk had alienated the business. The superior attitude ensured rejection of the proposals giving him limited options on the way forward. He believed that others did not understand technology neither did they respect his experience.

We know the CIO should have tactfully managed the relationships first selling his ideas to become the choice of solutions and vendors. The politically incorrect situation was self-created and this dawned upon him in our discussion after a few drinks had been downed. I am not sure if the self-revelation was too late to make amends or he had the opportunity to go back and change the direction. He thanked me and left. I am curious on how this unfolds, keep watching this space.


March 4, 2013  2:35 PM

2012 to 2013, old wine in new bottle

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

In November 2011 I wrote about predictions for the CIO. Because I did not want to stop at 10, the post had 11 predictions. This year I did not create a list of predictions or a wish list for Santa CEO/CFO to fulfil. I also gave it a decent amount of time coming to end of February thus 16 months have elapsed; now looking at the list, its efficacy and applicability to the current year and beyond, I realize that the world at large for the CIO has changed but not changed. So here’s the list and current scenario.

1. CIOs globally will continue to be challenged on operating budgets. Capital investments will become relatively easier; operating expenses will need to be controlled very tightly.

Talking to many CIOs and CFOs in the last two months, this remains reality almost in its permanency

2. BITA (Business IT Alignment) will fall off the priority list for many as it will no longer be an issue. Business will acknowledge IT contribution and will work with IT to plan business goals. There will be no separate IT goals.

This shift was also acknowledged this year by the premier IT research company and validated by CIOs

3. Attrition will not be the problem, retention will be; with economic and political uncertainty, staff will hang on to their respective jobs. CIOs will have to take some hard decisions.

This trend is beginning to become a worry for a few CIOs; in the last 6 months there were many IT staff that were hit and were looking for opportunities.

4. Clouds will be the first choice for deploying apps for the mobile workforce. The rest will continue to access applications behind the firewall. Hybrid clouds will remain experimental as CIOs figure out that it really does not save money. CIOs will no longer build data centers.

Reality is quite close to this; I have yet to see core apps moving off. ROI has eluded everyone thus far

5. Lead by Consumerization, mobile devices will be out of IT control (for good) and the personal device will find a way to get inside; resisting CIOs will have to provide equivalent additional device, which eventually the Business will turn down. Managing multiple screens will become a pain for the Executive who will challenge IT to make it simpler. The phone as a corporate device will thus be replaced by the tablet over the next 2 years.

Tablets are making inroads especially with Win 8 stability curve round the corner. Everyone has 2-3 devices today with one of them rarely used but toted along nonetheless

6. CIOs will or be forced to challenge the cost of sustaining big ERP (licenses, support, etc.) as it keeps growing; alternate support vendors will gain market share. Usage will shift out from the office to using marketplace supplied micro-apps thereby challenging the existence of big ERP in 5 years.

Now this is one that I was really hoping would begin to help the CIO. So far no luck though

7. Social media fatigue will set in and even marketing teams will be asked to create ROI for expenses and investments on such initiatives. CIOs will need to manage expectations around social analytics while Consultants will thrive with maturity models and make loads of money.

Consultants did make money; the declining interest is evident though attention is shifting to another hyped technology below.

8. The CIO will continue to be tasked with managing information security with the CISO reporting into him/her. A few cloud bursts (cloud security breaches) will make matters worse before things settle down over 2013 and beyond.

Well, security breaches are becoming business as usual; uptime has been a bigger headache. So the CISO continues to live in the shadow of the CIO

9. Big Data will remain high on hype with vendors pushing and CIOs scratching their heads if it really gives the benefits promised.

Flowing from social media, the mushrooming industry is riding the hype curve while everyone is wondering if it is a key looking for a lock

10. Custom development of solutions will wane with ocean of micro-apps promising to enable business processes as effectively. At the same time appliances will replace generic hardware.

Custom solutions are slowing down though the micro-app has not replaced it as yet. Appliances are yet to get the required attention

11. Many CIOs and research analysts will not agree many with the above points.

When I published this list, many did disagree and some acknowledged it. This year I think I will stick to this for now.


February 25, 2013  9:52 AM

The IT orphanage, happy ending?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Last week when I wrote about orphaned projects, applications and solutions that find no takers despite them having started life as perceived business critical process or need, many of the readers wrote back with their stories of orphanages within their companies. The problem has been around for a long time since the time IT departments started developing software for ever changing stated and unstated business needs. The idea of alignment between Business and IT thereby took shape and still remains the subject of discussion.

Rarely did the CIO bring this to the discussion table with customers or at Management meetings as the failure was largely attributed to insufficient business engagement and understanding; compounded by the fact that there were some broken systems and challenges that kept the IT departments busy just to run business as usual. So everyone worked in expectation of creating a better tomorrow driven by new and disruptive technology trends and new solutions that promised to solve the issues of the past and future.

The protagonist CIO in the earlier post (The IT Orphanage) had a big white elephant sitting on his lap and the enterprise had written off the project as a bad experience. More than a dozen man years of effort seemed a waste and the solution had no takers. The team was disheartened, the business indifferent, and the vendors wondering what next. The CEO was not interested in funding the project further and wanted to cut losses and move on. The situation seemed hopeless.

Undeterred, the CIO called the team together and captured the sequence of events from the initiation of the project. Step by step they analysed the methodology, the plan, the data elements, the solution pieces and the overall architecture, and finally the business need and benefit. Everything appeared to fit in; they could not find anything wrong with the technology. They went through the business objections and the critique of the results one by one and that is when they discovered the real cause.

The impacted business users were being challenged by the outcomes; they were feeling threatened by the results that expected them to give up their old way of thinking. The actionable insights that the solution proposed required the business to unlearn what had worked for them so far and approach their customers and the market differently. A consultant would have classified this as a change management failure; however this went a little deeper than just change management.

So the CIO farmed out his team to selectively target some of the empathetic users; they adopted a struggling business unit and worked with the business head to help her. Having been pushed to a corner and labelled as an underperforming unit, the business head was happy to use any help possible. She became an ally and agreed to work with the team. The team worked in their spare time, over weekends, to meet the new partner’s requirements. The vendor pitched in with no fee to recolor the elephant.

Over the next six months everyone toiled and sweated; the business started showing an uptrend and quickly turned profitable. The business head emboldened by the success redoubled the efforts embracing the new state of nirvana. In management meetings she started talking about the tools of her success and how it has helped them grow. She urged others to discard their cynicism and give a fresh look to the solution that was probably ahead of the evolution curve in the industry.

With the numbers speaking rather than perceptions, grudgingly the CEO endorsed the way forward and slowly other units came around. The ramp up was quick and the fire spread quickly giving the company a distinct leadership position and advantage. Fresh investments gave the project a boost and the team a great sense of achievement. Success has many fathers and soon everyone wanted to talk about how they had supported the project earlier. The orphanage had one less member now.

Soon after, the CIO quit!


February 18, 2013  10:06 AM

The IT orphanage

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It had been a long search, far and wide, across the oceans; many able men and women working as teams traversed the globe in her quest. A few options were shortlisted but discarded very quickly when some deficiency was uncovered with deeper analysis. The rigour redoubled, the pursuit unwavering, the promise of reward for the long-term kept them going. Their leader encouraged the team though the journey especially when they appeared to falter and give-up.

Almost a year into the expedition, the quest finally came to an end with what appeared to be a perfect and made to order ending. The leadership team got together to discuss the outflow; she was expensive and required high maintenance. No one had the courage thus far to take such a risk. However the promise of the future convinced everyone that it would be worth the investment. So they all agreed to part with the precious gold coins and get her on board. High risk, high return said the treasurer.

She was welcomed with a lot of fanfare, the headman chose a name from the many suggested and the message spread across on the new unique acquisition. Everyone contributed to setting the expectations that rose in unison as if in a crescendo; everyone watched the future with euphoric anticipation. Smiths and specialists from all over the world got together to define outcomes that she would enable. Progress was slow and soon people started paying lesser attention focusing on their daily chores.

Life continued as usual with occasional reviews that highlighted challenges to understand and adapt to her whims. The workmen toiled day and night for many moons encouraged by their leader who did not give up belief. Two winters later the team broke off into a joyous dance; everything worked as designed, all the links delivered, the input validated, the outcome was as expected. Rushing to the leadership team they demonstrated the end result, chests puffed with obvious pride.

Celebration was called, everyone wanted to be associated with success; anecdotes of arduous journey spread with friendly banter.  After almost 18 months since the start day, the project had gone live and was churning out results that were unfamiliar territory but delivered business outcomes the leader had believed possible. The competitive advantage gained using the new technology was evident and accolades poured in locally and globally for the unique pioneering solution.

Too good to last, some of the naysayers found reason to challenge and doubt the results; conventional wisdom did not support the new solution; thus they were able to sow seeds of doubt which spread quickly through the enterprise. The initial success was passed off as stroke of luck and not sustainable. With no supporters, almost everyone went back to their old way and deserted the solution as a bad dream and mistake. The solution thus joined the IT orphanage.

Applications and solutions that the IT team developed bur no one really used; solutions that were bought by users only to be discarded with no one to support them; applications and reports that are always urgent for development but rarely complete UAT; and if they do, hardly anyone wants to use them, they all finally find their place in the IT orphanage. These have no owner, no user, and no parent to support them. Once relegated they rarely if ever find a benefactor who is willing to support them.

Every organization has a (un)labelled orphanage that sometimes gets very crowded especially if the CIO and the IT team is unable to assert themselves or if they collectively work to create solutions that are disconnected from business reality. The CIO needs to highlight such instances transparently and openly to either change team behaviour or improve chances of success; and/or change business engagement and ownership that rarely if at all any need to be assigned to the orphanage.

P.S. Within a year the project was revived by the CIO and has stayed a success now for over 2 years; that is a story for another time.


February 7, 2013  1:59 PM

Feeding the elephant

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Recently I participated in a Big Data conference which boasted of speakers of all shapes and sizes (literally too) from government, global multinationals, large enterprises, to vendors and academicians rounding off the tail. The audience filled the room to the brim with expectations of gaining insights from the deliberations and debate. After all, according to IT research analysts, Big Data is one of the key technology trends on everyone’s agenda and priority list. It’s like if you are not doing it, then you are Jurassic.

The agenda comprised of speakers from all mentioned above; some had done it, some were selling wares with titles containing “Big Data”, a couple of consultants and service providers who offered their “expertise” on the subject, and finally a CIO to provide an enterprise perspective of how are corporates looking at it. All in all it was an eclectic mix which promised to give value for time invested to the organizers and participants. I took up a corner perched at the edge of my seat and watched the proceedings.

Setting the foundation the keynote speaker talked about the concept, progress made by IT companies, known deployments of Big Data by a few FMCG, internet companies, and government agencies. A case study of a potential big data application at a government initiative demonstrated the dimensions of Big Data, i.e. Volume, Variety, Velocity and Value. Everything was going well thus far with the audience – a mix of technology staff, IT students, and some service providers – lapping it up all.

Then events took a turn that changed the atmosphere in the room; everyone sat up awoken from their stupor and peaceful existence in the cushioned chairs. Like falling off a cliff was how a participant described it later; the turmoil changed the agenda and the utterings of future speakers who were cautious in their exultations of Big Data. The speaker exceeded his time; no one interrupted his thought train. He challenged everyone to challenge his hypothesis; none did. He was the CIO talking about relevance to the corporate.

Who needs Big Data? Where does it fit into the maturity curve of an enterprise using Business Intelligence or Analytics? How do you partner with business who is still swamped by reports or dashboards at best? Actionable insights? When does a data warehouse become inadequate and Big Data become necessary? Is it about unstructured data only or volume of data or complexity of analysis? Is analysis of social media tags or text Big Data even when volume is low? So what is Big Data?

Consultants and IT companies have developed models and tools respectively to hypothetically help companies mine the sea of data. They have been talking about uses and value across industries based on some assumptions. A few pilots with companies have not empirically demonstrated a correlation between the Big Data analytics and the benefit. Internet companies have used scalable models of their earlier working solutions as they grew; e.g. recommendation engines, product associations, etc. These are not new.

Is it just hype or a technology solution created for specific purposes now being touted as nirvana for all kinds of data problems or analytics that have historically belonged to the data mart or data warehouse? The CIO challenged the audience to clear their vision, heads, and minds and think rationally on what is the business problem they want to solve before deciding on the tools and technology. The yellow elephant in the room cannot be ignored; its relevance however needs to be established before feeding it.

At the end of the session which led into the lunch break, the CIO was hounded for his contrarian views; everyone wanted a piece of advice and some wanted to debate their conflicts in private. The poor fellow was deprived of lunch with the next session being ringed in. I believe Big Data like any new technology trend needs evaluation in the context of the enterprise’s reality. Is there benefit to customers or employees? If not why do it? Like my old CFO friend said “If it makes cents, only then it makes sense!”


January 28, 2013  8:58 AM

Risk, Reward and Recognition

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

He took a calculated risk with a new solution from a start-up vendor for a critical part of the business. The project started well and then ran into huge issues during a recessionary trend that hit everyone; under pressure the users started taking a cautious approach to every bit of functionality and wanted every remote condition part of the solution. Everyone who had signed off on the risk matrix now conjectured about the decision putting the CIO in a spot which lead to his movement.

Fast forward to another era, the CIO now with another company took on the challenge to rescue the underwater reputation of IT. He took a bold step to choose a smaller and relatively unknown vendor for an even larger business critical project; the selection process was unquestionable with sign-offs from all CXOs. The project went live with flying colors and was recognized by the users, the company – locally and globally, and acknowledged as a paradigm shift in the industry.

News about his risk ability and success was coupled with the many awards he and his team had collected. The business too was bestowed with many industry awards as they leveraged the technology solutions with due credit to the IT team. The Midas touch was such that even though the company had normally been on the leading curve of technology adoption, now it was a playing ground for every IT company wanting to invest and explore use cases that the weak hearted would shy away from.

Through the years many started seeking coaching and mentoring from the CIO; he acknowledged all, was ready with a piece of advice, networked across layers with ease, growing in stature feeding on the recognition. Industry bodies and forums wanted him as an advisor, conferences vied for his participation; everyone was satiated with his response and participation. He became larger than life in his embodiment of success and the persona became bigger than the person.

One fine day he sold the Ferrari like the Monk from the famous book and gave up all the glitz and fame to start all over again. There was shock and rumbles of “something must have gone wrong; after all he was taking too many risks; it was too good to last”. Puzzled people who knew him or thought that they did, queried “Why ??”. A few bold ones asked the question in vain, others wondered, the void he left behind was too large to fill and thus remained a vacuum with his absence being felt by everyone.

I caught up with the CIO who had retreated into a dark hole, asking the obvious hoping to gain some insights into the compulsions and rationale that had many wondering. He quizzed me instead to postulate the reasons of which I denied him the possibility instead pushing for words from his mind and heart. I found it hard to believe his story but it was his story only in a way that he could think of the future. I sought his permission to write about it which was granted. In brief I reproduce the same.

I thought I was invincible; I always took calculated risks though they appeared to be undue from the outside. Every success fed my ego, my success went to my head until I failed; I could not believe it, I tried justifying it to myself, oscillating between being the victim, blaming circumstances and everyone else. Until I realized that it was not about others, it was about me. That made me introspect on what success means to me; I analyzed my situation, my behavior, sought feedback, and decided to use it.

I shared my ideas with my teams and the business who took them on as their own thereby reducing the risk of failure. Success brought rewards and recognition which slowly and steadily began to once again boost my ego and self-esteem where I was becoming uncomfortable with the situation. I had been to the peak and had fallen hard. The heady feeling of invincibility beckoned again and was difficult to resist. So to put to rest the temptation, I quit; to start all over again. I feel at peace and excited to once again conquer new peaks!


January 23, 2013  9:04 AM

Action, reaction or discussion?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Discussion

The order was released to the vendor after multiple demonstrations and discussions with the business teams. Everyone agreed that any step is a step forward from their current reality; the vendor, IT team, and the users were excited with the new capability that was being attempted for the first time which would create a new way of working in the industry. The teams believed that all who mattered had been aligned with thorough groundwork done by the business and IT teams.

And then the CEO raised a few fundamental questions that setback the project to square one. Have you considered the buy-in across the layers? Why will it create a better future for us when our competitors using the same solution have not benefited? What are other industries doing and is there a learning that we can imbibe? Who are on the team and who is not, are they the best we have? Do you really know the reality on the ground? The team intuitively knew the setback and irrelevance of the discussion at this stage. They had updated the CEO through the process, but no one raised the head to be shot!

Reaction

The marketing team proudly presented to the Executive Committee their success from a cloud based solution that brought them kudos. They had won the Social Media Innovator award; everyone applauded the success. The CEO turned to the CIO and offered his compliments to the IT team too. The CIO was going from pink to crimson and blurted out that he was not even aware of the existence of the solution. The CMO undeterred mentioned that the solution was so simple that it did not need IT help.

Recovering the CIO ranted on the collapse of governance and shadow IT compromising the information assets of the company; customer data risk and reputation were at stake should anything fail at the un-assessed IT solution and vendor. The CIO gave instances from the past and the industry that highlighted the business risk in such situations.  He then skilfully turned the situation around with an agreement to review, recover and secure the customer data while also offering to extend the solution to enable better analytics.

Action

Opening up of the market was an eventuality that everyone agreed to; everyone was discussing and debating the impact it would have on the industry at large and different segments of the market. Some companies made elaborate plans to leverage the new reality as and when it happens. The CIO benchmarked his company well locally and discovered an opportunity looking at upcoming trends in the mature markets. He presented the use case to the CEO and stakeholders who agreed with some caveat.

He pushed ahead with the business, the IT team and the vendor to deploy the solution seizing the early mover advantage and consolidated the market position with additional 5% market share over and above the already dominant position. The initiative was acknowledged by the CEO, the industry at large and strengthened the credibility of the CIO as a business leader rather than a technology innovator.

Where are you?

Three narrations, each disjointed from each other, each happened to different people at different times, each created different impact to the business and for the CIO, each has learning for the business and the CIO. The stringing together of these portray how people behave to stimulus influencing the outcome and thereby the impact to the company at large. We all have gone through similar experiences and been in similar situations. What would you do differently in situations given above?

I hope that many will associate with the last one and a few with the first two situations. I believe that each situation challenges us and also gives us an opportunity to break the mould and do something differently. Next time take a step back and determine what step you would like to take. We all face adversity in our life; and so many times how we react to it will determine our destiny and outcome. Go ahead, exercise your choice.


January 15, 2013  3:21 PM

A Strategic Discussion

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Recently I had a very interesting discussion with a CIO friend. She is by most benchmarks a successful CIO who has a credible record of delivering many solutions that business has used effectively across her many assignments. Over a year back she joined a company that is well established though does not score well on IT maturity. She took that as an opportunity to make a difference and help them bring mature IT to drive business value. Her road appeared well charted with buy-in from the Executive team.

The initial period or the “honeymoon period” was a dream run getting to know the business, the initial plans and fixing the basic stuff typically referred to as the “low hanging fruits” or “quick wins”. She brought the IT team together and with frequent meetings, coaching and guidance had them working towards the defined common objective for the team. Initiatives got off the ground soon enough with her team working with vigour to achieve success that had eluded them in the past.

Some of her direct reports who were new to the team; they quickly learned the business with help from other team mates and discussions at the ground level across operations. She started reaching out to her peers to gain their confidence and plan for the long-term. The projects were handed out to project leads to go and engage the business teams in a dialogue to discover current process as well as identify the critical success factors. The team charged by initial success garnered by the quick wins and the changing perception decided to approach the next level of managers and operational heads.

The IT team scheduled meetings with the operational managers to discuss the strategic intent of the new initiatives. Their progress was far from satisfactory; they had too many questions on why the need for change, what will happen to existing data, how will it impact the people down the line, etc. They were obviously not aligned to the direction agreed to by their bosses. This disconnect caused by lack of information flow downward caused heartburns on either side. The CIO attempted to moderate the discussion with limited success.

Some of the teams had no inkling of the new initiatives; looping back to business leaders the discovery was the fact that there was no consistency in communication. Some had informally spoken to their direct reports while others expected the CIO to drive the change initiatives. She was expected to broadcast and/or communicate the decisions, rationale, plans, motivation, methodology which they had endorsed. As the initiator of the proposed change the ball rested with the CIO. Not a healthy situation as she recollected to me.

She took charge and formulated the communication that was approved by the respective business heads. Then she realized that if the communication did not originate from the business owners there was a risk that the project will become an IT project with reluctant participation. Back again she coerced the CXOs to disseminate the same. The tone of the discussions now was different with the endorsement of the respective department heads.

Strategic discussions can only succeed when both sides have a complete agreement on the process and the outcomes. For the CIO to make progress, it is imperative to get the message across the layers of the functions which are impacted directly or indirectly. Any gaps here will lead to unaligned objectives; I believe that CIOs should manage the process such that they are able to create the ownership and urgency towards the meeting of objectives. My friend did make progress until one incident.

In a meeting with one such middle manager where she too was present, he got the meeting started on the wrong foot. He said, “Are you folks really ready for a strategic discussion ? First fix the email system that keeps breaking down before we can get down to serious business !”. Not that the email system had failed in the last 6 months, the experiences of the past continued to colour the perceptions of progress negating any gains. And that is a story for another time.


January 4, 2013  5:12 PM

The CEOs pet project or the Emperor’s new clothes

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It was evident that the project wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry even though the CEO had endorsed and inaugurated it in a gathering of all key stakeholders. It was (had become) the CEOs project which no one believed in. The floundering state of affairs had the IT team and the CIO wondering on the steps they could take to come back on track. After all abandoning was not an option considering the large sunk capital investment and the CEOs belief. The CIO started asking around in the network to explore possibilities.

Almost a year had elapsed since the licenses were procured and the hardware installed; everyone had delivered to promise more or less within the timelines they had agreed to. The IT team had done their bit and ensured that everything worked the way it should. None of the business heads or the key users believed that the priority set by the CEO mattered; their level of thinking was far removed from the ideas perpetrated by the CEO. This disconnect resulted in sporadic half-hearted participation.

The IT team discovered bottlenecks in the master data, correlations between systems and disparate formulae for the same KPI across functions. Getting everyone to the same platform was resisted actively or met with indifferent attitude and claimed conflicting priorities. The CEO in the infrequent status meetings pushed the CIO and the team with little change in outcome. The CIO explored all advice thrown at him and decided to take a few bold steps to recoup the situation.

The starting point was revisiting the outcomes expected from the project; what is the need ? Who benefits from it ? Do expected key users feel threatened with the new process ? Is there a problem with the technology ? Did we get the architecture right ? Are internal and external resources deployed the best ? Were timelines set realistic ? The answers were what he thought they would be. Everything was fine, it is just that people nit piking and splitting hairs, blaming the tools and the result.

So what were the real causes of the lack of traction and belief ? Evidence pointed to the fact that the CEOs thinking process was ahead of the curve which his team found it difficult to connect with. Sycophants in the team prevented others from raising the issue and everyone was on a merry-go-round. End result, the CIO was left with the orphan baby crying for attention and an adverse impact on his performance bonus. So he had to find a solution and that too quickly.

Working diligently through the layers with open communication flowing through the hierarchy, the IT team and the partner worked step by step resolving all direct and ambiguous queries. External Subject Matter Experts were brought over the next six months to educate the users on why the CEO defined path was the way to go in the future. Global benchmarking helped in reinforcing the way less trodden locally. Finally one business head saw the value and agreed to be the guinea pig and the proponent.

The BU head worked with the CIO for further six months reaping the benefits and promoting the cause to his peers who grudgingly began to acknowledge the benefit. The CIO pressed hard this time and found no pushbacks. The acceptance and traction was good. Three years since the start and two years from the time the problem was elevated, the solution was a big hit. Everyone quoted it in internal meetings and external seminars as the strategic differentiator. People raved about it as one of the best implementations.

Incidentally the CEO had moved on just when the project started turning around. His last words of advice to the CIO that he believed in the solution, he should continue to pursue it. We all see such favourite projects of CEOs and other CXOs faltering after a great pomp and show. They take away a lot of energy, budgets and resources to see through to fruition though rarely anyone wants to challenge the need or the relevance at that time. The emperor’s new clothes will always be a parable with learning for everyone.


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