Research Analysts from the industry keep finding excuses to put the CIO down; I have no idea which set of CIOs are on their panel or the ones they interview or poll for various reports that they publish. The data is not available to the audience who may want to challenge the conclusions. These reports almost always end up portraying the CIO in negative light. The effect that these “respected” industry analysts have on me is similar to the red flag in front of a bull and I end up taking the bait almost every time.
The CIO’s role is going to disappear; the CIO now has to depend on the CFO for approval of every spend or investment; the CMO is taking away a significant part of the IT budget; the future of the CIO is uncertain; the CIO has not evolved to becoming a business leader; the CIO cannot become the CEO; the CIO rarely gets a place on the management table; the CIO is being relegated to the back office; the CIO needs to give up being a hardware hugging IT manager. You get the point, I got high blood pressure!
In a recent conversation with one such analyst, he joked with the gathered CIOs that they seem to be getting themselves a new meaning to the acronym; he started describing his recent encounter where the CIOs were mortally afraid of letting go their infrastructure (hardware hugging CIOs to use his words). Maybe he made it up, maybe it was true, we couldn’t fathom, a few CIOs surrounding him were red and pink, waiting for someone to challenge him. Questioning did not reveal their location, industry or size of company.
Rechristening the CIO as Chief Insecure Officer, he stated that the CIO in the changing environment should be worried about his/her existence in the future. With the cloud becoming pervasive, the purchase power stands diminished; the licensing is being discussed with business teams he postulated. The CIO has to keep things running he concluded. My reality being different also echoed by most that I know, there was a clear disconnect to his qualified remarks.
What causes this situation? I believe that it is due to the fact that many CIOs are unable to discuss specifics of the initiatives they are driving for confidentiality reasons. That would be giving away the strategies driving business or profitability growth which would be counterproductive with competitive advantage being lost. It is also that most companies have stringent norms on who speaks to press and the level of disclosure allowed. Whatever the reason, the analysts infer what is convenient for them and what makes headlines.
Is it time to unshackle the CIO to provide a better understanding of their contributions and their leadership? The marquee-CIOs have been empowered by their enterprises and they are making headlines with case studies and speaking in various forums. That does not necessarily imply that the rest are not contributing albeit silently. Either way it is time to stand up and not be cowered by the statistical data thrown at us by the industry analysts.
There may be regional and industry-imposed differences across geographies on the role of the CIO; those pale on the face of the fact that almost every company today draws its operational and strategic advantage on the foundation of IT. The critics will attempt to undermine the borderline cases and sometimes also cast aspersions on the better ones; the CIO has a choice to take them as distractions or be influenced by them. Go ahead and make your choices and carry on the great work that only you can.
Jalebi is an Indian sweet (dessert) extremely popular in the northern part of the country though now available internationally in Indian restaurants. It has a complex circular structure; these photos represent what a Jalebi can look like. In recent times, Jalebi was made famous by a Bollywood actress with the character named Jalebi bai. I have always been fond of Jalebi though in recent times have reduced my indulgence.
The CIO had great expectations when meeting the team from the most popular tablet vendor in the world who were pitching for an innovative solution. The large team comprising tab vendor, sales partner, and solution provider looked brazenly confident and rightly so considering the aspirational value of their product. Rarely were they in situations where they had to discuss the merits and advantages of their device; everyone justified internally why they wanted their solution and they just made truckloads of money.
The internal customers were already sold on the device not the solution despite its shortcomings for the specific business need which required significant internal change. The business head had been aligned to the device (not the solution) and the meeting was expected to be a cakewalk. Despite the iconic nature of the device, the technical team was wary going into the meeting; not many enterprises had deployed on the scale that was envisaged and in challenging environmental conditions.
The meeting started well with a summary of the proposed solution, similar deployment in developed markets though on a smaller scale and how they can change the way business is done. The technical lead started asking a few questions which the vendor team tried to brush aside. He persisted as the support burden would fall upon him and he had to be sure. With amazing clarity of thought he laid down the questions that would determine the fate of the project in the long-term.
The vendor sales head started to justify the value proposition by talking about how the device has gained popularity globally and caught the imagination of the consumer. Their dominant market share is a validation of how well their device works. The number of solutions available on the device outnumbers all other competitors put together. They have been continuously innovating on making a better device. He went on and on, on the merits of the hardware sidestepping the pointed questions.
The discussion was going nowhere so the CIO intervened and sought specific answers to the specific questions. He clarified that the decision was contingent on the ability of the overall solution including the device to work as expected. If there are no workarounds or ready solutions, then they will have to explore alternatives. The long stories cut no ice; come straight to the point and stop going round in circles. After moments of silence, the meeting proceeded to its logical conclusion quickly.
In the post meeting debrief, many in the room almost in unison associated the past hour spent to the vendor making Jalebi. He avoided giving straight answers to most questions, instead, preferred to remain vague in his responses. Any love for the vendor by association to the device soon evaporated leaving everyone impatient to get over with the charade. Business does not and cannot accept the nebulous and imprecise when working to solve a determinate problem.
With tolerance levels reducing and options increasing to solve real business problems, vendors have their task cut out for them; the business and the IT teams are working collaboratively to arrive at solutions. The discussion is focused on what matters, the scenario is the same internally too; no more beating around the bush or running around trees. The Jalebi is great to eat not considering the calories it adds; go on a diet, keep it away from the meeting room.
This is the second part of the series of articles on the improper selling-tactics adopted by IT vendors while engaging with the CIOs. Read the first part, ‘Stop Selling!’. Also read: ‘How should vendors engage with CIOs?‘
The solution expert across the table looked crestfallen; his manager besides him attempted to calm his frayed nerves while the account manager to his right did not know where to look. The CIO had advised them that the solution was not relevant to his future needs and the discussion was over. Breaking the uncomfortable silence, the manager sought to find a silver lining in the cloud, a sliver of hope that there may be a faint opportunity in the future? Firmly declined the CIO; then things started going out of hand!
The starting point of the meeting was the aspiration of the incumbent solution provider to retain the customer who had decided to move to a competing solution. Over the years that the company had been using the solution, the relationship was managed by vendors’ partners with the principle staying hands off. Challenges with the implementation and support were largely managed by the partner. As the company started feeling the pinch of a suboptimal deployment and support, they sought alternatives.
The alternative solution was not really an alternative but an industry leader with now a dominant local and global market share. After multiple futile attempts to reach across the teams of the incumbent provider, the CIO gave up and started working with layers of his enterprise to gain their support for a disruptive transformation and go with the market leading solution. As the news reached the incumbent, their leaders started arriving in droves to rescue the situation; this was one such meeting.
Unwilling to accepting “No” to his plea, the expert started challenging the decision, making criteria stating his solution was as good if not better than the competing product which had a higher TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). While the number of customers today may be lower, the new upcoming product would compete head on. All other things being equal, why did the CIO not get this? Why was he insistent on going with the other expensive solution with significantly higher license and implementation costs?
The exasperated CIO raised his voice a notch and stated that ROI and TCO were not the primary factors for the decision; the company had lost faith in the incumbent solution and the vendors’ ability to support the new business requirements. The company needed a better and globally accepted solution. Their solution has not found favor within the industry after so many years and neither has the vendor engaged with the company in a way that induces confidence; so no point continuing the discussion.
Desperation defying logic, the red in the face expert could not face the ignominy and wanted to know what he or his company could do to retain the business. How can he prevent the entry of the competing product and solution? He was now clutching invisible straws. The account manager wished the earth would swallow him, while the boss-man tried to pacify the agitated expert. The amused CIO simply said, “I don’t have to answer your questions; this meeting is over” and walked out of the room.
Selling is an art as much as a science. Peter Drucker postulated: “A customer never buys what we sell”. The transaction completes when the need to sell is aligned to a need to buy. In the absence of a balanced equation, the relationship sits on a weak foundation; then the possibility of successful execution is reduced leaving everyone vulnerable. Unfortunately an open dialogue is rarely understood or appreciated today in our target pressures driven by monthly, quarterly, or annual budgets.
I believe that vendors should learn to accept “No” as much as they like to hear good news. Every time every one cannot get a favorable deal; someone will be deprived of success. Don’t push beyond the break point, lest you end up compromising relationships. The CIO too should not be swayed by these tactics, pressure from other CXOs, or end-of-season sale kind of deals. The relationship is based on demand and supply as much as on trust and respect. Any change in the equation will have an impact.
Last week I was at a panel discussion organized by one of the large global IT conference producers, the subject of the debate, “Creating Leaders”; the panelists some CIOs and some aspiring ones. It was a great interaction between the panelists and the audience; everyone had questions and everyone also had answers based on their experiences. The best parts of the session were the stories as illustrations and examples of what works; stories are always memorable (See: The Story Teller CIO).
Everyone has their definition and opinion on what constitutes leadership and its development; the CIOs talked about the skills they look for in their teams to pick high potential performers. The key tenets were collaboration, empathy, articulation, communication, relationship building, partnering, business savvy, domain expertise, and attitude. No one talked about technology, educational qualifications or certifications; no longer critical once you are in the reckoning for the top job, these are a given.
On the other hand, the aspirers wanted feedback, coaching, freedom to take decisions, allowing them to fail, engage with business independently. They wanted to work with the CIO and on represent the CIO in business meetings. In essence, they wanted to get to the chair quicker than the CIOs believed they can. A healthy competitive spirit with young blood that makes you feel good; of course, with practiced restraint where required; failing fast is not equal to failing frequently said one wise CIO.
The surprise came from the audience when one of the CIOs who had evolved from the business made a point to the speakers on the dais and the audience. He talked about the professional expertise that came in the way of good going to great. The dialogue between the young turks and the business folks takes shades of impatience and arrogance; “you don’t understand, let me tell you how, here’s the solution and it’s so obvious …” it creates polarization separating IT, business, and vendors.
He berated the I-factor driven by T with the IT teams and stated that the when IT teams talk about them versus the rest, it creates an invisible rift between the stakeholders. He mooted the idea that IT should stop working with the “I” (me and myself) and start thinking in “we” terms which improves the possibility of success with shared goals and objectives. Each person on the table represents different skills and dimensions of the problem and solution; it is not possible to work without any and achieve the same success.
Everyone was numbed into silence for a moment and then spontaneously the room burst into applause; I do not do justice to his eloquence or story telling here, it touched a part of everyone in the room. Reciting from ancient scriptures and connecting to the current IT context, he implored the collective to shed ego and success will follow. Having created magic in minutes he took his seat and the conversation continued from where it had left off strongly influenced by the sentiment suspended in the air.
The power of success weaved into a story always creates positive energy; the message clear and crisp, the actions unambiguous, the leadership lesson complete, the panel concluded. As I left the stage only to be surrounded by some to seek personal advice, the thought at the back of the mind lingered on; what can I do to transform my team to We(T). We Team is better than I Team or IT; I need to tell this story to my team on what we will do differently. Quick, you too do that before the moment is lost!
A sparse gathering of smart people in a small room were discussing an important business hoping to change the outcome in their respective circles of influence. These were seasoned players in industries big and small across diverse geographies and line of business. It was crowdsourcing at its best and that gave rise to the expectation that the problem will indeed find itself vanquished. No, I was not the fly on the wall or a passive listener; I was called in to moderate the discussion.
When I joined the group, they had already listed down the facts and figures about the rate of success that they had captured from published research as well as search engines. Anecdotal references were discarded focusing on empirical data and reference case studies. They had also listed down challenges and issues based on their real life experiences. The consistent and clearly emerging message was how to get Business back into BI, while the “I” actually stands for Intelligence and not Ignorance.
How buy-in happens
One of the discussion threads went something like this: the CEO needed quick reports and analysis of business with the ability to drill down; he also expected the ability to slice-dice the data. The business head wanted control over her team and did not want the CEO poking his big nose. IT simply wanted to buy the best tools since they did not have control over the environmental and political factors. The CEO in a social meeting was sold on the merits of a frightfully expensive platform and that was that.
The tool was bought, the wish-list generated across different stakeholders top down, the scope defined and captured by the principal vendor, and the execution outsourced. The requirements were skewed in favor of reports and very few dashboards or analytical cubes and that was deemed okay; everyone agreed that the phase two will cover the rest. So with a lot of fanfare the project got started and everyone believed that the future holds a lot of promise.
The impact on the stakeholders?
Through the discussion no one challenged the ask, no one sought to understand the impact of the multitude of reports on the stakeholders, no one challenged as to why the operational staff was not in the room to define what they wanted. The executives in the room blissfully proposed the metrics and data that others should be seeing, reality being far removed from the proposals. The few dashboards that were to be consumed by the CXOs changed shape based on assumptions of what they would like.
Running through the discussion I realized that this specific case had all the ingredients across the various representatives, so the solution could be broad-based to apply across. Good news is that it was not a technology project considering initial active participation from the business, however, they had disappeared post initial discussions leaving the baby with the vendor and the IT team. With the sketchy picture the solution was unwieldy and unusable across the layers of management and operational staff.
Back to basics
My submission to the team was to go back to basics and start asking some tough questions and not to proceed if the answers were not up to the mark. Their lack of enthusiasm depicted their unwillingness and inability; with some persuasion they agreed to plunge ahead. As we discussed the questions and the approach their eyes gained the missing spark; the conclusions were agreeable to all present as the best way forward. Here’s a synopsis; report is used as a representation, it could be a dashboard or cube too.
1. Why do you want this report?
2. How do you get this information today?
3. Who else could benefit from it?
4. What will change for you after you get it?
5. Which personal, group or company KPI (e.g. customer, employee, revenue, profitability) does it relate to? How?
As we closed the meeting, I realized that earlier some of these questions had got me into trouble from which I could extricate myself from with some effort. The project was however declared a great success and a case study by the company, vendor and the industry.
I believe that it is a better place to be; ignorance to intelligence is a difficult journey. Educate the business; don’t get bullied into accepting inane requests for reports that can be fulfilled by transactional systems. Someone has to drive it, why not you?
This is the first part of the series of articles on improper selling-tactics adopted by vendors while engaging with the CIO. Read the next part, How to accept a ‘No’. Also read: ‘How should vendors engage with CIOs?‘
Recently, I had interesting discussions with a couple of “technology experts” separately brought in by their respective companies to help us design the best possible solutions. There was no correlation between the two opportunities or the technologies that represented the solutions; the behavior of the experts representing very large companies was indistinguishable like they were twins separated in early childhood but grew up to mimic each other in their approach to providing a solution to an opportunity.
After months of “engaging” on various opportunities to create new innovative differentiators for the enterprise with many vendors, the narrowed down list comprising the two vendors decided to bring in their technology architects. They needed to hear the expectation from the horse’s mouth and clarify the requirement before proposing the solution. I do not believe the problem or the solution is relevant here but the overall approach, methodology and intent is the focus; so I will restrict to the human side.
Now when you have a set of experts in the room, the expectation changes; for the benefit of everyone I repeated the proposition and outlined the need and the want. Everyone nodded and the expert asked a few pertinent as well as tangential questions. Addressing them and moving on to the framework of solution design the patience level of my team started waning until the experts decided to present the final solution using a set of slides. Very quickly the dam broke and …
The experts knew the subject and how their solution works, its limitations in real life situations. The discussion and clarifications were to validate if the solution would fit in, which is fair. Having said this, the direction the dialogue took was totally different. Instead of working with the team to flesh out the solution, the experts started a sales pitch on why we should choose their solution! Any interruptions were brushed aside with an air of “I know what is best for you and let me tell you why”.
The relationship managers sensed the total disconnect and tried to intervene without success. The experts in overdrive mode bulldozed ahead ignoring body language and voices of protest. It took some effort to close the meeting which was making no sense or headway. Trying some steps in damage control, the account managers separately mentioned that they will revert to the team with options to take the initiative ahead.
With no acceptance or alignment of the solution a discussion on the Bill of Material (BoM) is a sheer waste of everyone’s collective time. The ROI or TCO matters only when the customer acknowledges that the solution is appropriate for the enterprise. You don’t sell until you know that your solution has acceptance and that it meets requirements and business goals. Was the need to sell so desperate that they risked alienating a reference customer or professional arrogance that consummates such behavior?
In the current economic scenario the pressure to sell is evident on almost every company; that does not condone such tactics and behaviors; their pervasiveness scares me. I believe that vendors need to work with their customers to evolve any solutions and gracefully walk away should there be a stretch to fit their wares. It would be an undesirable situation where their key customer the CIO is not willing to come to the table or shuns these meetings. Maybe it is time to start exploring vendor-IT-business alignment?
In recent times there has been a hue and cry that Corporate IT systems still need users to be trained on usage and functionality; the underlying hypothesis is that if one can adapt to all the social media sites, shopping portals and various mobile apps, why do corporate IT solutions require formal training as well as guides for users to struggle through them? Why cannot the ERP, CRM, SCM, DW/BI and other systems be user-friendly enough for anyone to intuitively start using the application?
Making business apps user-friendly
Consultants, experts and companies have mushroomed claiming to help enterprises de-clutter and make friendly even the most complex transactional systems. They come in with variety of tools and review the problem from various angles and dimensions. These UX experts in many cases are able to create improvements with increased usability and thereby deliver the intended results. However, these have been limited to websites, portals and in a few cases custom and bespoke applications.
Over the last 20 odd years of the existence of enterprise applications, the change in the user screens has evolved with changing functionality and technology. From green screen to client-server and then onto the browser, the change has been not too significant even when you consider all operating systems and platforms. The top 5 enterprise application screens today have changed only to incorporate different buttons and tabs, and maybe with a drop down or look ahead search; the rest remains the same!
Then how is it that new generation applications have broken this paradigm such that they have been embraced across geographies, age groups, user communities, and consumers and corporates alike. What makes these Web and mobile apps so intuitive, easy to the eye and deft of click or touch? No one ever provides training nor does anyone ask for it. Have the big name vendors no interest in easing the pain of using their apps? I do not for a moment believe that they are immune to this phenomenon.
Inadequacy of efforts?
So I did my bit of research talking to the vendors attempting to unravel this mystery. Without exception, all of them acknowledged the problem and cited special interest groups, advisory committees and even empaneling of experts to solve the problem. I also got myself invited to a couple to ascertain the steps and direction, and with a desire to help. Using eye ball trackers, cursor followers, semantic parsers, and a horde of techniques beyond my comprehension, they attempted to sweeten the pill.
We all know that the gap continues to exist, the unrest with the user community increasing and the helplessness maintaining status quo. None the wiser after a few years of participation, I parted ways and started challenging my team and developers to create intuitive interfaces to apps. Easier said than done; while I did not like what I saw, with no bright sparks for improvement, the teams soon ran out of ideas and enthusiasm to pursue the nebulous goal. We did create some improvements, but they were nominal.
The problem and the opportunities
Only recently I had my Eureka! moment that the twain shall never meet, the usability mountain will remain unconquered for some time to come, and we will continue to struggle with training for every app, big or small, custom or off-the-shelf, that we deploy within or outside of the enterprise. The reason is obvious but not staring you in the face until you think hard about it and then some more. It will not come to you intuitively (at least it did not to me).
With tablets and mobile becoming mainstream compute screens and apps for specific processes connecting to corporate apps, the dependence on the conventional corporate IT solutions will reduce. Does this put off the pressure to simplify the usability of systems from the vendors? Yes and no; most have taken on the opportunity to create their own apps retaining the customer and the corporate security needs.
Corporate apps expect structured data inputs for business with defined boundaries and validated masters; they are input heavy and work in secure environments. Whereas consumer “friendly” apps mostly deal with unstructured public domain data which is viewed by many, input by few. The divergent needs keep them independent and their evolution following different paths. The CIO has to manage expectations at all levels and educate the enterprise on what reality will be for a long time to come.
A heated debate ensued between the two project managers, from the development vendor and the customer respectively on change in scope of the project. This was not a late stage discussion or changes requested during UAT; in fact, the project was just a week-old with the Requirement Specifications still being formulated. The key user who was also the subject matter expert sat through the charade wondering where she should step in. With no resolution visible, they all decided to go to the CIO for arbitration.
Predefined, is it?
It was supposed to be a quick win project that typically delivers what everyone refers to as low hanging fruits. The project brief was a working model on a spread sheet of the solution to be developed. So it was assumed that the solution should be easy to create and scale up. The timelines and costs were agreed to and the vendor team arrived on site to finalize the project scope and integration points. So what could be the reason for the conflict? If something is working, how can requirement change?
The CIO heard the point of view from each stakeholder, the user, IT project manager, and the vendor. For the user, she had clarified how the model worked and what was expected from the system that the spreadsheet was unable to deliver; the IT project manager stressed upon the integration to various masters and the scalability expected of the solution; and the vendor project manager completed with a complaint that some of this was not in the original scope that was outlined prior to commencement.
So what was the issue asked the CIO? Wasn’t the current discussion to clearly define the functionality expected from the system? Where is the conflict in the integration definitions? Does expansion of the concept and explaining in detail qualify as scope enhancement? They had an advantage over a standard software development model that a working prototype was available. There was a discomforting silence for a while until they all decided to go back and close the discussion amicably.
So when I bumped into the CIO many months later, I enquired about his story from our last meeting. He mentioned that it had gone live but did face challenges in the initial days. This was discovered during deployment that the system needed elaboration. The functionality was evident common sense but missing from the system (I shall not get into the details here which my CIO friend explained to me to my surprise). He quizzed the team for the missing parts of the whole; the user said it was obvious, the PM agreed, the vendor did not.
State it explicitly
“It is not in the system since you did not ask for it.” Technically correct but does not solve the problem! So now that the system is accepted, deployed and support phase over, this is a Change Request and will have to be managed as such. The ineffectiveness of any argument was evident and the only recourse was to give in to the demand in the interest of the project and the business. That vendor has not been welcome to new initiatives since then; even the support has been moved to other partners.
My friend the CIO had no recourse! Do we? With the outsourcing trends taking the direction that they have, everything has to be now explicitly stated and included as a part of the Requirement Document. If you do not have an internal team of business savvy IT team members actively involved through the cycle such outcomes are quite likely. Invest in your team, keep them actively involved in the project and not just to manage at a high level. Keep a watchful eye open. Assumptions hurt; try “ass u me”.
In the last few weeks there has been a lot of publicity and visibility on the fact that CIOs are being or going to be measured on business metrics, many of which they do not control or influence directly or indirectly. This sparked many a debate on various forums that attract CIOs, and social media sites and groups that are dedicated to IT leaders. Not that anyone tried to contain it, the fever spread globally very quickly with reactions that spanned the spectrum of emotions.
Traditionally, IT was measured on three aspects: operational efficiency, budgets, and delivery of projects. The connected world also added information security. Disaster recovery and business continuity surfaced and made it to the dashboard. Somewhere business benefit crept in and then projects were also reviewed from a business angle. Regulatory compliance required significant IT support and thus edged in. But revenue, profitability, customer acquisition or retention, product availability?
How does the CIO influence any of these? Can better IT deliver additional growth? Will technology drive profitability? What can the CIO do to acquire new customers or retain existing ones? And what about product quality or availability? If cash flow is an issue, how will systems ease it? Competition has a better and cheaper product or a great marketing strategy, can IT or the CIO counter it in any way? If the answer to one or more is no, then why link performance or compensation to these measurements?
I know some of the CIOs, who have been there done that, evolved beyond technology and / or taken additional business roles will say that the CIO can indeed contribute and influence most of the measures above. This is achieved with systems that create operational efficiency, business process management, information visibility, business intelligence and analytical models, and even enabling new models of engagement with the new trends and hyped technology troika: Big Data, Mobility, and Social Media. Cloud and Outsourcing are passé; everyone has done it or is doing it.
It is evident that this piece of news has many people worried, and not all of them are CIOs; they are propagating the message that if I cannot control something, I should have the choice to determine if my performance is likely to be impacted. Fair point if the organization worked in perfect silos. In business and life uncertainty is certain and thus even the metrics that seem to be under control have dependencies – internal and external – which are beyond one’s power of influence.
Does the CEO control how the industry will behave? Can the CFO control interest rates or liquidity crunch? If the customer does not buy, what can the CMO do? Rhetorical questions? They are not helpless, but there is a limit to their ability to influence the outcome. They do play a role and they depend on the rest of the CXOs to work lock-step in achieving success. CPO (Chief People Officer) has to help hire and retain the best talent, CIO has to ensure information availability to key stakeholders for decision making and analysis. That’s what the C-suite is all about.
So if the CIO stakes claim to the table, it comes with a set of obligations and responsibilities; it comes with the territory; all CXOs are jointly and individually responsible for the success of the enterprise. It is not about “I have done my part and now you go figure”; I believe that CIOs should and does actively seek this responsibility and then works with others in shaping the future. The C-suite has to take this variability risk. Only then can the CIO aspire to take a position on the Board or become a CEO.
CIOs are a lucky bunch, whenever they have a problem of any kind, all types of help is available to them from various sources; IT vendors, system integrators, business school professors, peer CIOs, and finally management or IT consultants big, small, and even individuals, ex-CIOs, i.e. retired or in-between jobs. All of them bring different kind of experiences and solutions to the table; some with a genuine interest to help find the best solution, others with a vested interest to sell goods or services.
Recently when I moved to a new industry and assignment, there was a flood of offers to help from the entire gamut of consultants. Can we help you understand your new industry? Would you like us to do a diagnostic of the current situation? What about some help with IT strategy? Can we offer you some interesting research papers on the industry and its challenges? How are you planning to prioritize the various business pulls and pressures? Is there an IT governance issue you want to address? ….
Their insistence, persistence and perseverance created a few moments of shaken confidence! Did I really need their help to get started? I asked them for data on similar engagements where they had contributed to the direction and shaped the future for the CIO. My mailbox almost ran out of space! There were local and global case studies, customer references, engagement frameworks and best practices. I was surprised with some names of good CIOs friends, while others were predictable.
More than a decade ago as a newbie CIO I had gained some benefit from the consultants and IT advisory and research companies; they helped fast track my learning. But these references were amongst the best of CIOs. So I decided to call them to find out why they engaged these consultants; what prompted them to spend, and on what did they invest? Did they get any insights that eluded them or create a better strategy or help them in their success? Should I too get some of them on board?
The answers should not have surprised me but they did; the consultant brought credibility to the plan, documents on current status bench-marked to local and global metrics. The big name consultants were seen as the best options even when they put your words and common sense into fat documents and fancy presentations. Somehow the stamp of authority and approval made the difference to company management with higher acceptance. The CIO had validation of his/her choices and rub-off credibility from such engagements.
Now I am not averse to using consultants or industry experts in areas that need a different level of thinking and problem solving. To drive company-wide change across different stakeholders can always do with some help! I have had my share of good and mediocre; authority is not bestowed by the brand or the years, it comes from a deeper understanding of the issues and positive query; whereas the ridiculous ones tested endurance levels not to be recalled again.
In my current context I felt that whatever the consultants wanted to solve is what the company had hired me to do; that was my core competency and what I excelled in. By the time they came to the table I had most of the answers that had been discussed and accepted as the reality and way forward. I tested my hypotheses with a couple of big names; they acknowledged that I was on the right track.
Did I need a validation of my decisions? I don’t think so and neither did the rest of the business leaders who found the rationale and direction to be credible in its articulation. I believe that the use of consultants is finally a matter of personal choice influenced by the organization culture and the locus standi of the CIO. The past record of success internally or with consultants determines what works better. I think for now I will continue to stay away from them.