A lot has been written on this subject over the years and has also been intensely debated in various circuits. The task of aligning IT with business has probably been the most talked-of topic in the IT Management area. Quite a few seminars and talks on this subject that I attended, did talk of a host of issues but the sessions did not leave me any wiser at the end. The discussions were generic in nature and talked of the virtues of IT-business alignment and the attendant benefits. In vendor sponsored seminars, vendors took the center stage and spread out wisdom with a promise to help CIOs achieve their objective. CIOs who were invited to share their great experiences, took the platform to speak on the topic from their own perspective, often laying emphasis on issues that were specific to them which may or may not have added value to the participants in general. It is possible that some benefitted but there is no way of knowing if the CIO participants applied this knowledge in their work place and came out trumps.
In my conversations with our fellow CIOs, I found them to be aware of the subject and they understood the need to get along with business and to work with them. They all spoke the right language and professed to be on the right path. For instance they talked about the need for alignment, about talking the business language rather than technology jargons with the management, on working out a strategic plan of IT and about having a vision for their area of operation. All of this is surely encouraging and indicates that all is fine with our profession.
The other side of the story is however shows a little contrast. When I speak to CEOs and other business heads of a few organizations, there is generally an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with many of them expressing a general disconnect with IT. For example when I was called by the CEO of a fairly large sized organization, I was at a loss to understand why I was called as the organization had a good IT set up and spoke of a very successful implementation of ERP & so on. However when I met the CEO and raised this question, he replied saying he was aware he had a very good IT set up but did not know what he got out of IT. I was then asked to undertake a review and point out areas for improvement and connect with business.
Where are the CIOs stuck ?
Many of those in the CIO position have a technical background, either by virtue of their qualification or by training. They work hard, manage to keep the lights on with respect to the IT facilities and provide great support to the organization in implementing new technology solutions. They are quick learners and get to understand some aspects of business when developing systems for various domains. However it is possible that their orientation and thinking are good but not good enough to make them business centric and this could show up in their conversations with the management or from their responses to various business challenges. This expectation of them, often hyped, causes confusion and they often end up chasing this elusive orientation game without too much of success. While saying so I do exclude those who have done very well and may also be on the Board or in the Executive committee team of the company.
How to get back into reckoning ?
The only way to win back the pride of place for CIOs will be to equip themselves with the requisite capabilities required of them. Those who are young can take off and acquire a management degree or do a part time course. Some senior CIOs who have learnt various aspects of business while on the job, would do good by sharpening their skills with short term courses with management institutions. Reading articles and books by renowned authors is a wonderful way of assimilating knowledge that could change our paradigm. Other ways could be to learn under the tutelage of a senior management person or to seek mentorship thereby displaying a firm desire to learn the ropes and be of value. Those who have worked in management consulting firms earlier could be in a better position to handle this challenge. However it is not just about understanding business but also of acquiring soft skills which include leadership, communication skills, project management, negotiation skills etc.
The path is not easy but is definitely essential for CIOs to tread on. With new positions like the Chief Digital Officer, Chief Knowledge Officer etc. evolving, it is important that CIOs do not lose the opportunity to be counted and they certainly wouldn’t want to be bypassed. Adaptation to the changing times will be the key for their survival.
Times change and often leave us bewildered and it is more true of electronics & computing technology than many of the other fields. It was just the other day that an interesting discussion ensued with some of the erstwhile CIOs and veterans of the industry. We were recapitulating our experiences of dealing with technology implementation over the years. While we recalled the rapid changes that we had to deal with, we agreed that the future holds more surprises than any time in the past.
It is interesting to note the chronology of development over the years.
Stage 1 :After Charles Babbage invented the computers, they were put to use primarily for computing and were hence called computers.
Stage 2 : As more memory and storage became available people realized that one can process and store data which could then be used for generating various reports for the organization. Its usage spilled over to commercial firms and the term ‘data processing’ came into being.
Stage 3 : With more power added to computers it became possible to collate and analyze large amounts of data to generate useful and targeted information for decision making. Information became a rich resource and was a differentiating factor for taking a march over competition. With the widespread usage of information, the era came to be known as the ‘information age’ and experts opined that development of nations hinged on using information. The term ‘Information Technology’ defined the great role that computers and related technologies played in making this possible. The information factor got further fortified with use of ‘Business Intelligence tools’ and ‘Big Data Analytics. It became possible to extract hidden meaning from a mass of data whether in numeral form or in the form of text or other forms. The Chief Information Officer (CIO), had come of his own and occupied an important position in organizations. This era has continued for over 3 decades now and IT as a term has got strongly embedded in the minds of people when we speak of automation.
However computers and related equipment do not work in isolation. Connecting with people near and far we have to use various forms of communication technologies and hence becomes an essential ingredient of the solution. When connected over the internet, entertainment also became a part of this holy mix and so the term ICE (information, communication & entertainment) came into being.
Stage 4 – The Digital Age : The IT phase, in my opinion, is now turning over and yielding to something new. This is my view and I guess this would upset a few whom I don’t want to hurt. There is an increasing trend towards greater automation or greater digitization as we call it today. Access is no longer limited to desktops or laptops but the consumers today connect from a variety of gadgets including tablets and mobile phones. In fact there has been an explosion in the number of such people who use mobile devices. Thousands of ‘apps’ dot the landscape promising to make available any information or services to the user. The ‘Internet of Things’ has further blurred the picture – sensors and actuators connected by networks to computing systems have received enormous attention over the past five years. A dynamic industry is evolving around IoT technology. The digitization of machines, vehicles, and other elements of the physical world is a powerful idea. Even at this early stage, the IoT is starting to have a real impact by changing how goods are made and distributed, how products are serviced and refined, and how doctors and patients manage health and wellness. Information, on the other hand will be considered as given with various tools dishing out pre-configured but yet configurable information. The emphasis would be in terms of connect and execution rather than on mere information processing.
We have already seen the term ‘Digitization’ referred more these days than ‘information technology’ and the discourse has noticeably changed over the last one year. We hear of a ‘Chief Digital Officer’ more frequently in place of ‘Chief Information Officer’, than earlier. The world seems to have moved beyond the age of information processing and jumped a step ahead to actualize action with new found technologies and connect. Information is considered as given in this new state and the emphasis is more on delivery and end use. The term ‘Information Technology’ therefore does not seem to define the current state correctly. We have got used to that term for decades and I understand it will not be easy to give up and embrace a new term but I am sure that the term ‘IT’ would fade over time to give way to a new description which defines the contemporary state more appropriately. I know it took quite a few years to accept ‘Mumbai’ as the new name for the city but I don’t think we call it Bombay any more.
CIOs, over the years, have done a commendable job of making information technology work for organizations. The march of IT and its effective usage in organizations is largely because of their efforts. The game was not so simple – it was not just about working with technology but of managing people who used these facilities and meeting the expectations of the management.
The CIO evaluated technology needed for the organization and then put in efforts to make it work. To ensure its proper running he went about creating awareness among the users and imparted necessary training to them so that they could use the systems effectively. He set out to do the needs analysis, got systems developed, gave implementation assistance and did hand-holding till they could stand on their own. He was entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the IT infrastructure was available at all times. While others rested during the evenings, the CIO was the one who would be on duty to keep things running. The CIO was often at the center stage as IT became an important tool for business.
The Changing Scenario
Times have changed. Widespread connectivity, new gadgets connected to the net, mobility, and real time applications present a new landscape where technology is used differently. Companies exploit these opportunities to create the differentiation that they look for. Users are more aware and have their own demands that run ahead of what the CIO is out to deliver. Young blokes who join the organization are already technology aware and therefore it is no longer necessary for the CIO to sell the idea of automating business processes. User driven demands on IT sets the agenda for the CIO to follow.
Digitization has created a new paradigm in the use of technology in business, government services and other areas. At various places, business heads have seized the initiative to make use of digitization to reach out to the markets and customers while integrating various wings of business to fulfill commitments. We have heard of cases where the Marketing functions have directly appointed technologists (called ‘martech’), who take care of the technology part of marketing digitization programs.
The Role Change
The CIO sees his role changing and is aware that the demands on him are different than what they were in the past. Let us look at the changed environment and of some tasks that he usually performs and how he is slowly being relieved of these responsibilities:
- Procuring, installing hardware, software and networks – Many companies choose to get on to the cloud and avoid capital investments. They no longer bother about choosing and owning any technology but get on to a platform that serves their cause.
- Maintaining Infrastructure – These services are now largely outsourced with clear SLAs.
- Software development / package implementation – People tend to use standard packages and on the cloud where possible. The cloud model has reduced the implementation cycle and complexity of dealing with hardware and software issues.
- Network & security – Remote network monitoring and remote monitoring of security by external agencies (with strict SLAs) relieves the organization from the drudgery of maintaining and monitoring these operations.
The Emerging Scenario
The technology landscape and the usage of new tools and gadgets have really complicated matters. The standard classical method of technology has given way to a non-linear approach with disruptive technologies and their application in various spheres of work. With the business demands on the rise, organizations want breakthrough ideas for business, nimble footed teams which can take off in no time, quick actions and demonstrable results in a given time frame. Classical positions and roles therefore find no place in the new order. The traditional role of the CIO hence comes into question.
The CIO therefore has to find a role for himself in the new situation. He has to rebrand and reskill himself in order to make his contribution look unique. In my opinion the position of a CIO, as we know today, may not exist in its present form and may morph into something more relevant to the times as matters evolve. The IT department, as it exists currently, may also get absorbed into a new function that is relevant for the times. Companies may look for innovators, technology strategists, turnaround specialists or people with special skills who can create an impact and help business evolve and exploit digital opportunities to run far ahead of the competition. Creation of a new position of a ‘Chief Digital Officer’ is a case in point. How the new order takes shape in the future is a matter of conjecture and would be subject to varying opinions but the CIOs need to think, observe and mold themselves continuously as new requirements evolve in a rapidly changing environment.
The information Technology sector has undergone a sea change over the last few decades. I remember the days in the 1970s when we used to struggle with punch cards and rickety slow systems which would take their own time to process data. From then on changes crept in, slowly at first, faster in the years following (the 1980s) and then at a feverish pace towards the end of twentieth century and thereafter. It had been quite a struggle for many who had to survive and had to keep pace with the changes taking place around them. It was not only about learning new technologies but about application of technology, connect with business and meeting the changing expectations of management.
Evolution of the CIO
The role of the information technologist got enhanced over time. The young EDP officer was elevated to the position of EDP manager as more of his ilk joined his team. As technology evolved further to generate online information, the term ‘information technology’ came in to describe this function and as a result the EDP manager was conferred titles of ‘Information Technology Manager’, General Manager – IT etc., which came to him as his right of inheritance. When competition in the market intensified, information became a key resource and companies making informed decisions based on these inputs became more adept in responding to the customer demands and in fighting competition in the markets. Sensing the importance of information and the invaluable role that computers played, companies were convinced that the main driver of this change would have to be an information specialist who was also tech savvy. Such a person was then to be the ‘Chief Information Officer’ or the CIO. As was natural, the IT manager laid claim for this position terming this as his birth right. The management executives and other business heads to whom technology was alien, easily conceded to this demand. The IT Manager thus came to be known as the CIO.
The real challenge for the CIO
This, in my opinion was the turning point and the real challenge for the information technology manager turned CIO. Slowly as the need for relevant and meaningful information arose and as technology further integrated with the business, the real need for a good CIO came to fore. By now IT had got enmeshed with all activities of business and most of the business processes were automated. As competition intensified, more was expected out of investments in IT and demands on the CIO increased. The mere automation of the processes did not please the management enough and they started looking for visible benefits to business. The need for a strategic plan for IT was strongly felt by companies – a plan which could consider the strategies, objectives, priorities and goals of the business and lay down an action plan for addressing them in a phased manner. Business focus was paramount. Some CIOs measured up to the challenge while some others are still learning the ropes.
The changing scenario
In the meanwhile, impact of IT was felt in various aspects of business. Companies kept looking for newer ways to win in the market and considered using Information, knowledge, Innovation, data security etc. in a way which could enable and equip them in leading the race. This resulted in the emergence of new positions like Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), Chief Innovation Officer (CInnO), Chief Digital Officer (CDO), Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) etc. besides the position of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) which already existed. In the midst of such eminent positions, the role of the CIO had to come under review; it was now not as clear as earlier and the role looked a little hazy. Organizations now look a bit uneasy with the CIOs and the CIOs feel managements are unclear and non supportive. This situation has perhaps prompted some CIOs to turn entrepreneurs and operate outside corporates to be on their own, though I am unsure of this being the right reaction to the situation.
Unlike any time earlier, the CIO has now to adapt to changes taking place at a much feverish pace than before. We often say technology changes the way we do business and we really see that happening in various sectors of the industry. Confusion exists about how much should the CIO know technology and how much should he know of business. Managements expect CIOs to think beyond the ordinary and take lead in organization projects that use technology, in coordination with others in the company. The CIO is groping for answers and trying to learn more tricks in order to survive. His role is in a state of flux and digitization has now opened up a new paradigm. Many companies, on the other hand, do not know what they need out of the CIO and therefore share a part of the blame. However the profession of CIO is at crossroads waiting to evolve into a new avatar.
I remember it was the internet boom of the late 1990s that threw up a new crop of entrepreneurs. Various technology professionals kicked away their lucrative jobs and set up studios and kiosks to offer new kinds of services including designing and developing web sites, doing web programming, developing new products catering to supply chain and customer relationship management. The subsequent internet bust spoilt the show and such professionals got back to employment, but entrepreneurship had taken roots.
But of late there has been an increasing trend of CIOs wanting to walk out of their routine jobs to start a venture of their own and be masters of their own time. This desire exists today at various levels ranging from those who are only a few years into the profession to those who are at the fag-end of their careers. The desire to start off anew is spreading fast amongst many and they are out exploring this new world of freedom. Ever since I started off on my own after superannuation I have had discussions with many and it is interesting to see CIOs daring to explore new avenues leaving the safe havens of secure employment of steady income. They are not really the Don Quixote kind of warriors but are careful adventurers who are planning their next mission. To understand them better, let me classify them into four types :
Wanting to do something big
They are the young brash warriors who have been deeply inspired by old heroes like Bill Gates, Micheal Dell, Narayanamurthy etc., the new crop of entrepreneurs like Bansals of Flipkart fame, Bahl of the Snapdeal and founders of Paytm, Foodpanda, Housing.com etc. They are quite unlike the traditional CIOs and have huge ambitions. I don’t know how many of them have really been able to hit the jackpot but they are great fellows in the making. Ideas like creating a new product or service have crossed their minds and these ideas are being tested in their laboratories. Let us wait and watch for one of them to make a leap and hit a new ground.
Bored of the routine and desire a change
These CIOs are not the very young but those who are midway into their careers. Having come this far they have realized that their staid job with limited rewards is not exactly the professional life they had bargained for. They want to put their carriers on a fast track and be their own bosses rather than know-tow to the uninterested CEOs, troublesome CFOs and hostile functional peers. They have started jutting their heads out of the window and looking for opportunities that can take them out into a world of freedom. They have been on a survey contacting various vendors and service providers trying to assess the market and their readiness for such services. They are convinced that opportunities exist for services like software development, implementation assistance, application maintenance, outsourcing of services, web hosting, integration with new platforms like social networking, mobility etc. They are on the prowl and may knock at your doors one of these days. Do engage with them and see if they can add value.
Out of job and don’t see any position of choice
These are CIOs who have toiled hard and delivered value at various stages in their career. However situations do not work out favorably in all cases and the poor CIO seeks the right environment where he can really prove his worth. The corporate world is often hostile and they are out in the wilderness trying to make sense of what the organizations are up to. Tired of the eternal search for the right organization and position, these CIOs decide to chart out their own path and kick-off their listless and boring jobs that are devoid of any excitement. They are also out in the open searching for their prey and may reach you traversing a long winded path, being unfamiliar with the art of selling or soliciting business.
Retired or about to retire
These are veterans who may have spent the best years of their work life solving complex issues and handling the toughest of customers. That they have survived all this while is a tribute to their ability to stand their ground in spite of the forces all around that try to sweep them off their feet. They end their term with their head held high and with their heart in the right place. However they still feel young and not yet ready to hang their boots. They think they have enough energy and acumen to guide smaller organizations that do not have the benefit of good advice. They take up various advisory roles and also offer to work as part time CIOs to help such organizations to evolve a clear IT plan and make technology work for them. With grey hairs on their heads they also fit in as guest faculty in many of the engineering and management institutions. This CIO group is all set to expand and grow.
So friends, CIOs are on the move. Armed with new confidence and courage, they are set to take on the technology world. There have also been moves to form groups or forums or to create together a new entity to give established firms a run-for-their-money. Watch out for this space and observe how things unfold over the next two years.
Digitization is a subject which is current and hence everyone likes to dabble in it, itching to get on to the bandwagon. They know if they don’t embrace this new approach others would do so and run away with the booty. Therefore we find companies rushing in to go digital and pull all stops to get there first. Though there is nothing wrong with companies adopting contemporary methods and gaining a competitive advantage in the market but they need to take a considered view and proceed with a bit of caution ensuring they take the right direction with everyone on board.
Since so much has been written and spoken about going digital, it is but natural for executives to be bombarded with information and opinion coming in from various sources. Using this input they develop their own perceptions and lend their weight to the digital initiatives in the organization. For some executives it is all about extensive use of technology, for some others it about a new and effective way of engaging with the customers and other stakeholders while for the rest it may be about an entirely new approach to business and growth. While none of them would be wrong in their assumptions, these differing perspectives could cause hurdles to charting a clear and an unambiguous path for digitization. Such a lack of alignment would inhibit working out of a common vision about where the business needs to go. In such situations, companies may embark on a few piecemeal initiatives or make uncoordinated efforts which may result in missed opportunities, sub-optimal performance or false starts.
Business leaders therefore should have a clear and a common understanding about what digitization involves, what it means to them and the resultant impact on business. They should delve deeper and evolve a meaningful digital strategy to drive business performance and to achieve business goals. In order to make this work, one can look at the following three objectives of digitization to lend clarity to the approach.
Creating new opportunities
Digitization opens up new possibilities that the organizations can exploit and be ready to reexamine the entire way of doing business as also to explore new areas that provide value. It may be new methods of service delivery or newer methods of engaging with the customers or starting new businesses that are possible now with digitization. For example ‘Internet of Things’ opens up new opportunities for disruptors who can use unprecedented levels of data capture & accuracy to identify weaknesses in value chains and to take immediate corrective action. Using mobility and location aware sensors, companies can be in touch with developments on the ground and take proactive steps to get ahead of the competition. This requires company’s commitment to understand the implications of the developments in the marketplace and to evaluate how they may present opportunities or threats.
Adding value to the current business
The next element of digitization is to use this new capability to improve existing level of delivery, customer service, stock movement, decision making etc. For example understanding each step of the customers purchase journey, irrespective of the channels, and then using digital capabilities to ensure the best possible experience to the customer would be one such step. Similarly the supply chain can be improved upon for greater flexibility, efficiency and speed to deliver the right product at the right place. At the same time, data and metrics can focus on delivering insights about customers that in turn drive marketing and sales decisions. These will be cyclical dynamic processes where processes and capabilities evolve based on inputs from customers and other supply chain constituents.
Making technology work
Another element of going digital is about building technological and organizational processes that allow an enterprise to be responsive, agile and efficient. The basic platform on which the new initiatives would run will have to be properly designed and adequately equipped to handle the new demand of the times. IT systems will have to be architected afresh and decoupled from the earlier legacy systems. The new platform will have to be flexible, agile and open, in order to handle company’s response to the changing market conditions. A key feature of digitized IT is the commitment to building networks that connect devices, objects, and people. This approach is embodied in a continuous-delivery model where cross-functional IT teams automate systems and optimize processes to be able to release and iterate on software quickly. For these to work, it will be important to address mindsets of people so that they adopt and work with the new processes. Companies often create small teams which work iteratively to bring about initial changes and help institutionalize these methods and build capabilities for the longer term.
In conclusion I would say that the objective of going digital should be to unlock growth. Companies may interpret or act on this in different ways, but by having a clear understanding of what digital means allows business leaders to develop a shared vision of how it can be used to capture value. When rightly applied this could take the organization to the next level of growth and performance or otherwise they would just rue their missed chances.
Organizations embark on the digital journey with a fond hope of staying ahead of the competition. Their decision to go digital is often influenced by the desire to use contemporary technology & methods, peer pressure, persuasion of the CIO or other business heads or advise of consultants. Whatever the reason to go digital, the start of the journey should always be marked with careful thought and planning to avoid subsequent hiccups.
Taking up the project without a careful assessment of capabilities and resources could land the organization in trouble. With a focus on technology and its possible benefits, companies often forget that organizational readiness is important. They need to consider factors such as the organization culture – to see if it supports digitization, orientation of the senior management – whether they have been briefed and taken on board, capabilities of the key staff members – to assess if they have the right skills & attitudes, and a capable IT organization – if they have the right set up and capability of handling digital information. Let us discuss each of these factors.
Organization culture : Companies undergoing business transformation often ignore the risks of non-adoption when they fail to address cultural issues, either assuming that people would align themselves on their own or that they could be forced to fall in line. These measures, however, do not work and the proposed change remains a hostage to the work methods and behavior patterns of various people groups. It is important therefore to work on the cultural aspects and have the HR department hold transformational programs to bring about a change in the mindsets or even relocate staff members who do not fit the bill.
Orientation of the senior management : The C-level executives should be the driving force for digitization but they could also be the hindering factor. Their participation is important as they are expected to provide direction to the operational staff who work with them. The Board or the CEO should take these senior members into confidence and discuss the entire plan with them and buy their commitment and support. It is important for them to realize that their success as business heads hinges on the successful roll out of the digitization initiatives. Wherever possible they should be exposed to the contemporary methods by getting them over to visit companies that run such digitization programs. Once they are convinced, they will themselves champion the cause and work for it.
Capability of key staff members : This is an area generally not given much attention to. We often see staff not adequately qualified, short on capability, not skilled or differently skilled, not trained or wrong on attitude. It is important to assess this aspect of readiness and address the issue before the start of the digitization project. This is a transformational program and therefore needs thorough assessment. This involves selection of the right people, relocation of those not fit, training, skilling or reskilling them, taking them through motivational and soft skills programs, empowering them to act independently and make them customer centric. Where the required talent does not exist within the organization, immediate steps should be taken to acquire talent from outside. Reorganization and restructuring of functions and changing of reporting relationships might be necessary along with defining new job descriptions and this need to be carefully worked out, taking external help where necessary.
A capable IT organization : Many companies are still unclear about the best way to set up their IT organizations and develop the tools and talent required to manage digital information and establish and maintain online services and automated processes. The traditional set up is usually carried along with some superficial changes. Such an attempt would not work and may derail progress. Most do not properly acknowledge that many of the critical resources required to facilitate this transition may not be available in-house. The right talent may be in short supply and may often take years to build such capability. It is therefore necessary to hunt for talent outside and also consider outsourcing a few tasks where the required skills do not exist within.
Before taking on the digitization programs companies would do well to assess their level of preparedness and build capabilities to successfully implement and derive benefits on a sustained basis. Companies need to identify the business domains and activities that would most benefit from rapid digitization, and should manage those projects separately from their conventional IT projects.
Digitization efforts in many organizations do not fully yield results that are desired. While reasons could be many, one of the main factors for poor showing is ITs lack of alignment with business. Initiatives that are localized at the level of the IT or taken up by stray business heads hardly ever bear fruit. These initiatives may result in some improvements but they are insignificant and remain within a small sphere. Large organizations manage to steer clear of this trouble because of good professionals on board, but the gap is more pronounced in small and medium sized organizations. SMEs find it extremely hard to manage technology deployment without the right people and therefore their digital journey lacks clear direction.
One way of overcoming this problem is to seek advice from an external source and employ management or technology consultants to draw up a road map and suggest a plan of action. The consultants may be reputed firms or accomplished individuals but the success lies in making right use of them and it here that many are found lacking.
Let me cite a few examples from my engagements with clients over the last three years. In most places it was the lack of effective leadership that resulted in sub-optimal use of technology. Though the CEO is best placed to give it a right direction, any other senior person nominated by him can also deliver if he can think from the CEOs perspective, but that rarely happens. The following examples would go on to show that many organizations do need to wake up and bring in greater professionalism in the work place.
Where the CFO takes charge : It is customary in most organizations to make IT department report to the CFO. I cite an example of a mid-sized manufacturing company which decided to seek advice and their CFO called me over for a discussion. Since they had already decided on an ERP, I helped them through the implementation process with suitable business process changes and help streamline the functioning of IT. However to make effective use of their investment in technology I suggested they use business intelligence to strengthen decision making. The CFO, I guess felt uncomfortable with the idea as he was already getting his usual reports and did not feel the need to proceed further. The CEO never got involved directly but got briefing from the CFO. The company therefore was stay put at that level and lost an opportunity to build up on their initial work.
When the CEO calls for review but delegates responsibility – We often say a job well begun is half done. However, if the direction changes after the start, the job remains half-done. It played true for a fairly large company in the auto parts sector. The CEO was concerned about the efficacy of its IT and its contribution to business and hence was himself present for the initial discussion. He wanted me to do a quick study and share with him my broad findings. After this stage, the command passed over to the CFO, who along with the CIO tried to resist changes. Some of my first recommendations like centralization of the IT, IT governance and enterprise portal required some investment. The CFO cited lack of funds and wanted to defer these actions. I was insulated me from the CEO and he did not get the right status update. This was again a case of opportunity lost.
Where the CEO initiates but does not participate – These situations are also not uncommon. I was called in by the head of an institution who had taken the initiative to modernize work both in the academic function and the administrative area. Products were then selected and the work began in the right earnest. The initial enthusiasm could not however drive the project further due to the organization culture which was slow-paced and had informal work methods. The initial enthusiasm faded as the institutional head thought it was not necessary for him to participate and that technology should be dealt with by IT. The responsibility then was placed on the IT administrator to drive the projects on his own. Due to lack of direct participation by the head, adoption of new methods by employees, discussions on new initiatives, work cooperation, data discipline etc. suffered. Small superficial successes seem to provide satisfaction to the institutional head and the management. Instead of being an advisor to the management, I ended up being an advisor to the IT administrator. Technology could not therefore be gainfully deployed and benefits in terms of governance and better running of the institution could not be realized.
When the CEO keeps himself at an arm’s distance – A subsidiary of a MNC doing well in India decided to automate work to handle their expanding business. I worked with them to draw an overall plan to introduce ERP and other applications, connect with all stakeholders, mobility solutions etc., which was approved by the CEO. The CEO was perhaps advised internally to appear only for the steering committee meetings and therefore maintained a distance from the project. Internal contradictions in the form of cross functional problems arose at regular intervals which affected work but did not surface well during the steering committee meetings. Compromises at various stages resulted in a sub-optimal solution. Without a direct contact with the consultants, the CEO got colored information from his internal team and therefore could not get from technology what he would have wanted.
From the above examples it is clear that right leadership is critical to steer the digital journey of any organization. Unless the digital plan is driven by organization strategy, objectives and goals, work meanders taking care of a few procedural issues but leaving the main purpose behind. Organization heads need to realize that they are in a digital age and should directly confront technology and not just view it from the corners of their eyes.
In my last post I had discussed how important for it is for the CIO to get his CEO on board for his plans for technology deployment. I had said that CIOs should learn the art of influencing those who matter and be persistent with the task in spite of early failures. Best efforts however come to a naught when the incumbent CEO refuses to play ball and proves a hard nut to crack. The poor CIO keeps banging the door that refuses to open. I have encountered such situations and often wondered how to wade my way through. On some occasions I managed to address the situation but at other times I was left without answers.
The CEOs that I handled, both as a CIO then and as a consultant now, were accomplished men in their own ways but were not really cut out for handling the play of technology in their businesses. They had their own characteristics, background, understanding and orientation and therefore needed different approaches to make them come around to listen to me. Instead of being a guide and a motivator, many a times, they acted as speed breakers and did not assist in the absorption of technology into business. I would classify such CEOs into four distinct types viz. :
Not technology literate : These are old time CEOs, ones from the earlier generation, who may have spent their entire lifetime without the help of IT and therefore do not understand this clamor for technology. Wary of gizmos with smart guys running fingers on them, these CEOs tend to keep technology away at an arms distance. Any proposal on technology is promptly and automatically passed over to the CFO or some other functionary for consideration. His only concern is the expense on capital or revenue account and availability of budgets. There is very little that the CIO can expect of them and the CIO would do well to keep out of his away. For instance in my last outing as a CIO, I had to report directly to the CEO as I handled two functions but whenever I spoke of technology he would re-direct me to the CFO and lose further interest in the meeting. I soon learnt and decided not to put him through this torture and be a little more kind to him.
Use technology a bit but still indifferent : They know and use technology say for sending or receiving mails, opening an excel sheet or a word document, but that is where it all ends. Technology beyond this point is not their area of interest and they cannot comprehend the tall talk of a technology revolution and its likely impact. Decisions on technology are sometimes conveniently deferred, referred to an expert or forwarded to the executive committee. They would not directly participate but may really not act a spoilsport. However they are happy so long as they get their mail messages and periodic reports they ask for. In one of the organizations that I worked with, the only question that the CEO would ask me was whether the systems were working alright and if I took up a point for discussion he would advise me to put it up in the next executive committee meeting.
Have a function bias : These are functional experts who get elevated to the position of CEO but continue to retain a strong functional bias. Though they discuss various issues, any reference to their parent area evokes an immediate response whereas other matters get less than an enthusiastic response. Discussing technology plans therefore becomes so much more difficult. Reporting to the CEO who had come from operations, I struggled to get through initiatives on dealer management, CRM, treasury management etc. but a proposal for streamlining Supply Chain management got his instant approval. In another case, the CEO from Finance gave a green signal for ERP implementation but asked us to cover only finance and commercial applications along with inventory accounting. For them technology is just one another activity and not as important as the functions that they are comfortable with.
Those who believe in delegation : They are ostensibly great leaders who believe in participative management. They are masters in delegation and distribute responsibility on various matters. Information technology obviously doesn’t figure in the list of tasks that they directly look into and therefore pass it onto some functionary of their choice. In one of the companies I recently rendered advice to, I was called in and spoken to by the CEO but he later delegated the responsibility to the CFO and what happened thereafter was the usual, and the objective with which I was called for was not fully served.
So friends, here we are. Pray that you get to work with a CEO whom you can talk to – a CEO who can lend you an ear and at least absorb a little of what you say. Even if he or she were to be covered with a shell, you would wish it is not too hard to pierce through. It is important to win him over and those who can do so can ride rough seas with relative ease. For those who are not able to, the best way is to make friends with the COO or the next in line and use his influence to wade your way through.
It is always our endeavor to see that IT deployment in our companies have clear purpose and direction. As CIOs we often struggle to place our IT plans on the right path. The IT plan drawn is not for the IT function alone but one for the organization. Such a plan therefore has to be accepted and absorbed by the senior management especially the person at the top.
Many a times seemingly good IT plans get stuck at various junctures due to lack of adequate support from various constituents in the organization. Reasons could be many and the blame could fall on one or the other. The CIO could be at fault at times, not being able to understand the need of business, priorities or the processes but at other times factors like cultural issues, lack of proper orientation of the people who matter, and displaced priorities of executives could derail the program. Though the CIO can take various measures to engage with the people and explain the plans, his best bet will be to reach out to the CEO and try to get him on board. In my opinion the CEO is the single most important person whom we should have on our side. It is great to have his support but the story can be complete only if he/she participates in the execution process. Let us consider the ways in which the CEO can add value :
- Guidance : He can guide and lead us in a proper direction by articulating his vision, objectives, goals and priorities. He can also refer us to the management team for further details and can provide a lot of clarity for us to follow-up with further study and analysis,
- Being a catalyst : His buy-in into our initiative sets off a trigger reaction making other senior executives to fall in line. Those executives who could have set low priorities otherwise come around and start discussing. Co-operation then runs down the line as people are instructed to share documents and data. Engaging with users gets easier.
- Helping through problems : The CEO could really help when stuck with problems that act as hurdles in performance of systems. His gentle nudge to the reluctant user, or conducting a review of work on the project, passing clear directives or resolving cross functional contentious issues could pave the way for a smooth run.
- Helps obtain resources : When we face a resource crunch impacting our project, there could be no better a person than the CEO to help us fight through the maze of tedious processes, budgets and botched priorities to get resources like funds, manpower, working space, facilities etc.
The question, of course is how to get him on board and make him take our side especially when there could be many others seeking his attention. The task is not easy and there are no clear formulae that work. It depends on how we position technology in the organization, on how we build up rapport with senior people and on how we evoke confidence in others. Let us consider a few steps here :
Educate the CEO : When the CEO is IT savvy, it is a cake-walk but if he is not, we will have to seize an opportunity to explain a few simple terms to him. Rushing him into quick learning may not be a good idea and we have to exercise patience to let him catch up. If necessary we can seek services of a consultant or get a senior person from the IT vendor organization to speak and update him on the current trends.
Be pro-active : Offer to make a presentation to the management committee and place your plan to buoy up business. Speak the language of business and don’t try to impress with technical jargons. If we just concentrate on familiarization without seeking approvals it will not put the people on the defensive.
Making a business case : When putting up proposals for approval include a short summary explaining the purpose and the likely impact on business. While the accompanying details could be comprehensive, the objective, proposed solution, work plan and the outcome should make a compelling case for the CEO to appreciate and approve. What he is convinced of will receive his encouragement and support.
Maintaining a high success rate : What if you were to complete a critical project successfully and on time and repeat the performance on your next project. If you keep a close watch and demonstrate measurable impact to business, the CEO would not only give you support but also trust you with more responsibilities.