I was often amused and pretended sympathizing with them asking a few innocent questions to let them open up and tell me something more about it. What they said revealed quite a lot about their psyche and their level of understanding of the role they had taken up. These people were either CIOs of medium-sized organizations or IT managers from some larger organizations and they met me for a position in my company and in other cases came to seek my advice on their career paths.
What I found was that, in many cases, the perception of candidates was they had reached the limit of what could be done and there was nothing further that IT could do. Strange as it seemed, these candidates, however, seemed convinced of the situation. Let me narrate an instance of my encounter with a candidate who approached me for a job as manager. After the initial exchange of information about his current role and the my requirement, the conversation proceeded thus:
Me: Good to know that you successfully implemented ERP in your organization. Why then would you like to leave this position?
Candidate: Sir, once ERP is implemented there is not much else to do. Plus I have already given reports that users wanted.
Me: OK. Are users making use of the reports and have they derived benefit by reducing inventory, outstanding etc.?
Candidate: They take out reports regularly and I would expect them to put that to use.
Me: Did you explore the possibility of making process improvement in various areas and of reducing the turnaround time of different processes?
Candidate: That is a business call sir. I don’t want to interfere in their area.
Me: May be BI can help in analyzing business performance.
Candidate: I know but other managers don’t listen. Plus, it is difficult to train them.
Me: What about connecting other stakeholders like suppliers and dealers over Internet?
Candidate: That will take a long time.
You may have guessed it right, I rejected this candidate.
Those who came out of this syndrome
A young CIO once approached me requesting me to mentor him on his career path. Besides seeking a direction for his career, his immediate requirement was to change his present job for something better. I tried to understand his current role and factors that limited his progress. His answers were somewhat similar to what is mentioned above, but in this case he was searching for answers.
I talked to him about various possibilities including process re-engineering, BI, content/ document management, web-based processes merging into ERP, introducing mobility, etc. He then left with a few ideas in mind and worked in the same organization for the next two years bringing about changes and getting management’s attention.
He met me again and said he wants a change now, not because he was stagnating but because the organization had limited growth plans and therefore he wanted to use his new-found learning and confidence in another organization that is looking for improvement.
I thought that was an amazing turnaround displayed by this young man. He simply demonstrated that he could grab initiative and act when others slept. Problems are only in the mind and once you act things start things start falling in place. There is no point in running away from any situation as you may encounter the same problem in the next outing. Unless we use our faculties to improve the situation around us, we may fall short of our self-esteem.]]>
The CIO has to find a way in which he is more useful to the organization and make technology work for the company in its effort to grow and be more profitable. The plan that he makes for IT has to serve the organization’s objectives and goals. He also has to ensure that he selects the most appropriate technologies and solutions to help the company leap a few steps ahead of the competition. That makes his role strategic in which he has to understand company’s direction and goals and also bring in an element of strategy to his IT plans. That can enrich his role and make IT more effective for the business.
The strategic thought process
Even before the CIO starts with his strategic plan, he has to imbibe the strategic thinking process. Strategic thinking is a key thought process of strategic management framework; it is about finding and developing a foresight by exploring all futures and challenging conventional thinking to foster good decision making. This can be done either individually or collaboratively among key people who can positively contribute to the new thinking. Strategic thinking in this case involves understanding the fundamental drivers of business as also awareness about the technology landscape and various technology options available. He has to develop insight into the requirements of business and the right technology solutions that can materially impact organization response to the challenges faced.
Strategic thinking must take into account the following factors:
Alignment: The IT strategy must fit into company’s vision, mission, competitive situations, and operating strengths.
Goal orientation: Understand the goals defined and then set clear expected outcomes and make explicit links between these outcomes and company’s goals. Evaluate technology solutions accordingly.
Fact-based: Best strategies are based on some data, real facts or educated guesses. The logic behind the strategies should be clear and unambiguous. A formal documentation is recommended to set down the assumptions and factors considered for choices made.
Based on broad thinking: In order to keep the company nimble-footed, it will be best to consider multiple alternatives and a range of scenarios to arrive at the select choice. Consider technology solutions that give the company the required agility.
Focus: It is always tempting to do a lot to please everyone but it is important to go by the set of priorities defined by the company and devise an action plan accordingly.
Agreement: It is important to get people on board to work together and support the initiatives. Therefore steps need to be taken to ensure people participate in formulation of the strategy and feel satisfied that multiple view-points were heard before drawing the final plans.
Adaptable: Strategies need to be flexible and adaptable to the changing times and business changes and also based on learning from experimentation and new information. Plans should not be very rigid but one which moulds itself to the changing scenario.
When to start?
The thinking has to begin now. It is best that CIOs train their mind-sets to think strategy and make efforts to understand the situations around them. Strategic thinking is an input for strategic planning and therefore it’s important to get started and apply the thoughts to the factors mentioned above. It may not be a bad idea to seek help where necessary as the objective is to play a more effective role in the organizations that we are in.]]>
The act of making a wholesome budget and getting it cleared by the management is an art. It consists of a series of steps—right from carrying forward unfinished tasks from the previous year, to undertaking new and fresh programs in the New Year. The budget also covers routine tasks and maintenance of the current systems, aka keeping the ‘lights on’. A tricky job, this.
I suggest the following steps to make sure that we are right in our budget making:
1. Requisitions from functional departments: Ask departments to list out their requirements of IT support, along with their business plans which trigger these requirements. Try not to accept simple requests for the PCs, printers and software without them specifying the accompanying business need. This needs careful handling, as mere collation of requirements run contrary to our stated objective of being effective CIOs. We have to ensure that IT serves the business’ purpose. Unless the assets are put to right use, you cannot obtain benefits.
2. Bring out the Information Systems plan: Prepare a plan document that states the main business issues that IT plans to address. For example, these may include process automation in the plant, supply chain efficiency, ERP, work flow in specific areas, or sales force automation. This is the language that business understands, and the management is also clear about the addressed business challenges. In such cases, budget approvals are not very difficult to obtain. Routine expenses including maintenance and AMCs are usually not discussed on such occasions.
3. Translate in to an IT plan: Once the main direction for IT receives approval, we need to translate this in to a list of necessary equipment and software to be bought (or hired). This has to be executed carefully, taking into account new technologies and solutions offered in the market. It is advisable to review the current status of hardware and software—suggest upgrade or replacement where necessary.
4. Estimation of prices: This is often a challenge. I have been in both spots—situations when prices used to go up every year as well as the latter environment when prices saw a drop every year. In either case, it is best to apply our best judgment by obtaining prices from vendors—either formal or informal. You can formally ask vendors to submit their budgetary prices and then apply your judgment. This way, we come to a financial figure which may not vary widely with time—unless of course there are unforeseen changes.
5. Presenting to the management: On this front, you can put up a presentation to explain IT’s efforts to enhance business capability or efficiency, or send a note that clearly explains the direction being pursued and considered assumptions.
During my career, I have taken this approach and seen it work. I admit that getting a budget approved is not always easy—all the more so at times of low growth and recession, but proper persuasion would help avoid drastic cuts to the IT budget. The IT budget is often the first victim when cuts are imposed on spending, but if put across as a business initiative, spends may look justified. Lastly, it is important to work on the approved plans during the year and come out successfully–let us remember that we again have to approach the Board next year for approval of our budgets.]]>
The CEO considered his CIO to be the custodian of all IT assets —one who ensured that right solutions are bought and put to proper use. When the CIO asks for a budget and subsequent buys, he clears them in good faith with the expectation that he would look up to the CIO to take care of them. I thought that these were significant remarks which clearly demonstrated the CEO’s expectations and consequences of the CIO not living up to those expectations.
What I learnt in that exchange helped me immensely when I moved on to the corporate world as a CIO. Whenever I put up a plan to the Board, I did sufficient homework, and then proceeded to ensure that all spends were properly justified. Let me share with you some of the actions that I took.
In early days, desktops were provided to officers and staff based on their requirements. However, certain senior officers would often misuse this facility. They would get a desktop or laptop on their table (as a status symbol). They ended up not using it; or occasionally asking their secretaries/assistants to come and type out their emails or letters. Sensing this as the waste of an asset, I sent a message on behalf of the management saying that PCs that not being personally used by officers would be withdrawn. This worked like magic. Officers scampered to learn usage, and were home.
To cite yet another example from another organization, I found that the previous CIO had ordered for VSATs a year ago, but couldn’t somehow put the solutions to use. The first thing I did was to introduce enterprise wide e-mail and use the VSATs – that helped in developing an immediate rapport with the CEO.
Later on, I was put in charge of the ERP project. Instead of just attempting a successful implementation, I felt that the real success of ERP was when it starts to benefit the organization. So I worked relentlessly on process improvement in all areas (including manufacturing, materials, sales and finance). That proved to be a great experience. In such cases I feel that the best approach is to resist the temptation of putting the blame on users—instead, try to work with them and turn them around.
Assuming full responsibility for IT assets means due evaluation of requirements, proper selection, full participation to ensure success of each implementation, regular scanning of all areas to ensure that the assets are being utilized, and to keep looking for continuous improvement.
The bright side of this approach is that the management and users develop confidence in us as CIOs. Budgets and proposals for new projects are easily cleared. People start trusting us, and the famed user resistance reduces to a low and a manageable level. Vendors are also happy that their product/service is being utilized well and they come forward to support our initiatives. This really works.]]>
Nevertheless, the program started off a little behind schedule as usual, and after a brief introduction of the subject, the topic was thrown open for discussion. The format of the session was in the form of a roundtable, and every participant had a chance to express his view. The initial discussion veered around the variety of applications that run in our organizations, multiplicity of platforms, and problems of managing them. Most said that it was difficult for the CIO to manage all these jobs effectively for ensuring continuous availability, and it was therefore prudent to outsource these support services. The difficulty stems from the fact that they need to develop expertise on multiple platforms, and at the same time deal with staff attrition which is common in the IT circles. Some CIOs were of the view that choosing all solutions from a single vendor would help reduce complexity, though many others disagreed with this view.
The conversation then slowly moved towards effectiveness of the outsourcing measures taken and the way to get them right. Many of the participants had their views to express about the pains they face. They complained that vendors have to be monitored very closely and need to be held them down brandishing the SLA document. The common refrain was that vendors promise something in the beginning, but act otherwise—deploy not so bright boys, and hardly ever monitor on their own. The second view was also not so charitable. The feeling was that vendor organizations do not work as partners, since they always have their billings and revenue in mind—that they hardly ever think of the customer pain points.
To me, somehow, the whole discussion sounded a little funny. While on one hand we talk of the need for working in a partnership mode, on the other we express such lack of confidence on the vendor who supports us. Is the vendor always wrong, and is it that leading vendors in India do not know their business? Isn’t the partnership always between equals? What if I wield the whip saying ‘customer is the king’, and hold down the partner because he is dying for my business? The question is, shouldn’t the CIO also feel an obligation to enquire whether the partner faces any constraint and take a step forward to help him, with a spirit of ‘helping him to help you’? It is always easy for the CIO to find fault with the vendor and replace him with another one at the earliest available opportunity, but I am not sure if that would solve his problem. Changing a vendor is again painful, and causes disruption during those periods of change over.
In my opinion, many CIOs need to understand the principle of partnership and seek to reform themselves before trying to look into the shortcomings of their technology partners. It may be fashionable to speak of their great bravado of taming vendors, but that doesn’t lead them too far. True partnerships often unleash creativity, and bring out solutions that are game changing–synergies from working together may be the real trick that could work wonders.]]>