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

March 8, 2011  9:28 AM

Offsite meetings

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Every leader at some time seeks to engage the team in thematic exercises that are personified as offsite or outbound programs. Most of these are facilitated by external trainers who engage the team in field or classroom exercises. Typically such events spread over 1-3 days in out of city resorts where the external environment entices the participants while they struggle with the agenda and expectations. Almost everyone looks forward to such a sojourn from day-to-day work.

Over the years I have attended and conducted over a dozen such programs with teams―large and small―across organization layers. All of them were great experiences and opened up a new line of thought, provoking some action or reaction with me as well as other participants. Many companies conduct these annually by department or sometimes horizontally taking layers of management for team building, bonding and improvement of cross-functional dynamics.

In the last outbound program one of the participants posed a question to the moderator, how can we ensure that the learning from this program stay with us and bring about positive change? The volatility of learning defies expectation and evaporates by the time everyone reports back to their workplaces. Nonetheless this does not deter teams, companies and trainers world over from conducting such programs. The moderator promised to revisit the question before close of the program.

CIOs probably manage the most diverse teams with skills and competencies that are specialized in their own right. Be it infrastructure which can be subdivided into network, servers, data centers, or core application stacks that require technical, functional and architectural expertise; all of this and more form a typical IT team. Each professional equipped with ‘professional arrogance’ believes s/he is unique and better than the other. For the enterprise to function cohesively, these teams have to work in tandem like the machinery in a shop floor lest production come to a standstill.

The siloed nature of teams creates friction as well as competitive spirit that require the CIO to balance internal expectations with the expectations of the business leaders and customers. Outbound and offsite meetings thus serve an important purpose of breaking the ice, bringing together the teams even if for a short while, and provide a platform for exploration of themes that bring success to the team. It is foolhardy to expect everyone to create the same level of benefit for themselves; if some of them find their change agent, the event has served a purpose. It’s analogous to a classroom where all the students listen to the same teacher but hear differently.

Coming back to the moderator of the last outbound, in the final session, he said, “I am sure you liked parts of the program, participation level was great. I had nothing to give to all of you; it’s for you to decide what you want to take back.” Well said indeed, because no one can ensure what you take away from any program, discussion or stuff that you read; it’s a choice the participant makes based on his/her presence, participation (or lack of it), fiddling with the phone, or side talk.

On another note, Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing―that’s why we recommend it daily.”

March 1, 2011  8:49 AM

Intuitive analytics

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It was a packed house listening to a panel discussion between two CIOs, a CEO, a vendor and an academician. After almost an hour of discussion on various aspects of business intelligence challenges and opportunities, the session end requested final words on what they would like to see from vendors in the future? Leaving aside the Oscar-ian twist on being good to customers, better decision making and paying more attention to talent, the crowd applauded unanimously to the CIOs’ wish list. The CIO representing a ‘mature’ user of solutions from the sponsor BI vendor, made a passionate appeal:

Has anyone in the audience attended a training program on how to use Facebook, or any other website or messaging system? If no, then why do we require everyone even with above average intelligence in the corporate world to be provided training on usage of internal systems? What makes these systems so complex that they cannot be used without hand-holding?

I wish that we can all evolve to a level of BI/DW tools such that any user within the enterprise can start using transactional data to convert to information that can assist informed decision making. Anyone who can use a spreadsheet should be able to extract the insights hidden within the sea of information. They should be able to intuitively understand what is expected from them to get to the next step with no prompting or help (online or otherwise). I am talking about Intuitive Analytics, a term coined by me a while back to refer to analytics that is intuitive in its interface; intuitive to the user the way s/he is able to open the browser on the PC, Smartphone or tablet and start the journey of discovery on the Internet.

In recent times there have been multiple initiatives around improvement of how information is presented to the consumers. Evolution from rows and columns to dashboards, drill-downs, pivots, multi-dimensional analytics has evolved; the evolution of mathematical models as well as technological advances on speed of crunching data have pushed the boundaries across enterprise data warehouse projects. Over the last three years, DW/BI has consistently been in the top 3 technology and business priorities.

The experiences are, however, inconsistent in their delivery of business value. Some of the barriers include data quality, data model deficiencies, bad ETLs to name a few. The biggest deterrent, however, has been the complex user experience which has seen lesser evolution as compared to the technological advances. All tools with no notable exception provide the basic building blocks to create the DW/BI foundation and analytical layer, standard templates. The internal IT teams and implementation partners have yet to breakout from the mold to provide a rich, consistent, and meaningful capability to the end consumer of information.

I believe that this is an opportunity for one and all, CIO, DW Architects, vendors, implementation partners, to take up this challenge on making BI as easy as getting on any social media site and get started. If you have already crossed this bridge, do write back, but the applause on the floor to my comments, makes me believe that the journey is still more like an uncharted expedition.

February 22, 2011  8:48 AM

Retiring CIOs

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Recent months have seen quite a few CIOs retiring; many of them started their careers a really long time back, growing from technical beginnings and successfully transitioning from the role of EDP Manager to a CIO over more than last 3 decades. The next few years will see many more ready to handover to the next generation of younger aspirants. The subject of succession planning suddenly comes to fore raising questions where the transition had some impact on the organization. We discussed that some time back in “Succession Planning for the CIO”.

So what do retiring CIOs do ? Do they just fade away from the limelight gradually or in a jiffy just like that as if someone pulled the plug and in an instant from the next day there is a blackout? Or there are opportunities they can pursue to continue adding value to enterprises, younger CIOs, academia, may be consulting? Probably all of this and a lot more; what are the options a CIO can pursue after putting in 30+ years into the industry ? Should we just let go of the rich experience?

Almost 8 years back, I met a retiring CIO from within the CIOs I knew, a few months before his D-day. The conversation naturally veered towards plans post retirement. His face lit up as he talked about his plans post retirement from the 9-6 grind as he described his passion and involvement in a NGO close to his home town to contribute to the education of the underprivileged. There was obviously a clear vision of the future and that had nothing to do with his current role in a large Pharma company.

Beginning of last year, I came across a surprise New Year message from a CIO who had disappeared from the scene quietly and no one had a clue where he might me. He was running a small consulting organization focusing on specific technology and domain thus working with a few customers providing them with the insights gained from his experience. It became evident that he had planned for this day and was satisfied with the continued usefulness and revenue it generated.

Then there are many who pursued academic interests joining institutes as full or part time faculty; some decided to become freelancers on specific subjects like ITIL, COBIT, etc, which require experienced hands to bring out the context for the students by relating instances and anecdotes from experience.

Retirement is another phase of life which requires planning and preparation; you cannot stumble upon these opportunities after reaching the milestone which says “Stop”. It’s almost like a new job; except, in this case, there is no formal job (there are exceptions where CIOs have continued as consultants in the same company or joined other enterprises); but the accountability is to self first and then to the task.

The ranks of the new age CIO are raring to go with new skill sets for the new era of computing with a fabric of social media and clouds linking these across the ecosystem internally and externally. They are ready to challenge the grey hair with less technology, more business, and say what matters, effectively. If you are contemplating retirement in the next 5 years, if you have not yet started, get started now!

February 15, 2011  3:01 AM

Do you sleep well?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It was a gathering of 80 odd international CIOs from the customers of a mid-sized IT company. The keynote speaker’s industry experience was larger than the age of almost all the participants. This giant towered over the CIOs reflecting on his vast experience and how he witnessed the role of the CIO changing with time, accelerating in the last decade. I was enjoying the learning interspersed with anecdotes. One question had everyone nodding and agreeing except a lone figure who disagreed. The question was, “Do you sleep well or are running from one fire to another 24 x 7?”

He did not pass judgment on the crowd magnanimously except as one being busy with no respite. He sympathized with the majority seeking the causes of their misery. The murmur rose to a buzz citing various operational reasons including data inconsistencies, network outages, backup failures, and many more that kept them from the forty winks mandated by the Doctor. The crescendo unanimously in one voice cried the expectation to respond to the next message on their hand-held.

The grand old man trundled down the aisles whispering to some, nodding at others, patting a few, creating a wonderful sense of unity cutting across ages, cultures, geographies, and industries. It was like a universal global malady to which research has failed to find a cure. The binding complete, he turned around to the solitaire CIO, quavering finger pointing at his bewildered face and thundered, “Young man, what do you do differently that puts you above all?”

“I pass it on to others, I delegate!” Nothing dramatic, no magic formula, simple plain old fashioned delegation; the CIO went on to explain how he helps his team run with operations as well as projects. He empowered his team to take decisions, reporting back frequently on progress made, plans for the next fortnight, challenges faced and overcome, escalations that needed attention. He engaged the team in regular meetings to discuss this and new opportunities. The audience resonated, “All this sounds like what all of us do every day!”

The difference is in giving up the control rather than holding on to the umbilical cord. Effective delegation requires the responsibility and accountability to be with the team; they have the freedom to take decisions, make mistakes (hopefully not too many) with the coaching and mentoring of the leader. If they have to seek permission for every step or decision from the CIO, that is not delegation.

Autonomy comes at a price, but also offers reward of time to the leader. S/he can focus on what matters long-term while the tactical is managed by the team. A word of caution though, delegation is not abdication of responsibility, because when things go wrong and there is an adverse impact to the business, the CIO is finally accountable for the actions of the team and the outcomes.

The question to you is “Would you like to join the lone figure in the crowd?”

February 8, 2011  5:29 AM

CIO Resume: Part II

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A few weeks back I had written about my tryst with a CIO struggling to create a resume that would evince interest from headhunters, executive placement, or companies looking for one. After an unsuccessful struggle attempting to advise her to illustrate the business benefits of her interventions, I finally invited her over to collaboratively create a document that may interest someone looking for a CIO.

Together reading through the resume, I noticed she was passionate about her achievements and the impact they created, but had no words in her vocabulary to transform the bullets into business impact. So I decided to indulge in some role play and asked her to be the CEO of a company who wants to hire a CIO and read the document again. Every few minutes I stopped her to observe if it meant anything to the CEO. Her Oh I See moment stretched through until the second reading!

Take an example “16 years of experience in deployment of technology projects“, changing to “16 years of aligning business and IT consistently delivering to promise” or for that matter “Implemented FICO, SD, PP, MM, HR modules ….” which was replaced by “Optimized processes and improved business efficiency by up to 30% …., driven by SAP implementation”. The entire document underwent clinical surgery over two hours with the promise of post operative care to reduce the overall size to fewer than four pages, shedding almost 40% irrelevant content.

Everyone has a story to tell, but the story needs to catch the attention of the reader in the first 200 words or so. The risk of a boring or unintelligible document is real when the supply is higher than the demand. A large volume is less likely to be read compared to a concise one. Cater to the targeted audience and not a generic one. Research the target organization and change accordingly is a great way to at least make it to the shortlist. Talk to common friends or vendors if you are able to.

So is there an ideal format for a CIO resume, structure, content, layout? The answer is no, everyone is unique and has a different story to tell with their background, industries worked for, technologies deployed, and contributions made. Make sure that your headlines attract attention; the text that follows has conviction in what it portrays.

Finally, I think that what really matters is how you have contributed to the enterprise growth or savings, impacted customers (internal or external), what kind of influence you have within the industry you work for, the teams you have managed, the geographies and cultures that you understand, and contributions towards success of your peers. Isn’t this what a CIO or for that matter any CXO anyway expected to do?

Read CIO Resume: Part I

February 1, 2011  9:41 AM

CIO appraisals

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A few weeks back, I met a CIO who was feeling elated post his annual appraisal with the local and global bosses. He had reason enough to be proud for the ratings received—expansion of role and monetary benefit (of course). I also had to deal with a CIO who took a long time raving about the injustice meted to him by the organization which does not seem to get IT. Two extremes, and I’m sure that there are many experiences that fall in between.

Every year with certainty like the taxes, every individual dreads, anticipates, is indifferent, or resigns to the annual appraisal. The emotion varies depending on multiple factors, including but not limited, by past experience, organization culture, boss relationship, team, industry, and in many cases individual performance. Appraisals have always been debated on fairness, appraiser bias (positive or negative), as well as the bell curves to which they are expected to fit.

How does the CIO get appraised? What can he do to ensure that the dialogue is fair, the feedback constructive, and reward/recognition aligned to defined metrics and the overall performance of the IT team? Should these aspects be engineered (read as politically managed) to ensure a favorable outcome? Is it that we always expect more than what is due to us?

Any process or relationship between a subordinate and his reporting manager that leaves the discussion to its anniversary is fraught with danger. The discussion will rarely be able to consider contributions through the period, since last few interactions or outcomes will assume top of mind recall. Thus the benefit of the good work done through the year may be tainted by a recent minor incident. We all fall into this trap as appraisers too, and to that extent it is unrealistic to expect a completely unbiased interaction.

Appraisal is a continuous process with reviews, discussions (formal or informal), communication by the appraisee (MS Word does not like this word) and feedback by the appraiser. The formal culmination of this is the period based appraisal—typically bi-annual or annual, occasionally quarterly. One of the key tenets here is communication by the appraisee. Periodic updates and visibility of wins is critical towards building a reputation and mindshare. The CEO has to balance between all the functions similar to the way the CIO manages across differing expertise and IT domains.

Across functions, levels and CXOs, the best stories are always around measurable impact to the business, which can be communicated in unambiguous terms. This is non-debatable, and thereby provides a fact based discussion with the boss—even when he may be IT unfriendly or agnostic. The bell curve will take care of itself—you have that one meeting (similar to your job interview) to convince the appraiser, why you should continue to be where you are, or move up the ladder.

Maybe there is some merit in what Pythagoras said 2500 years back. “Rest satisfied with doing well, and leave others to talk of you as they please”

January 25, 2011  4:27 AM

Leadership is …

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Across two events over the last few weeks, I came across many CEOs and thought leaders who debated, discussed, and opined on the future state of the economy and what the industry can look forward to. There exists a general sense of optimism and expectation of a brighter tomorrow. A few mentions of the struggles that still remain in pockets, not to forget the lessons learnt in the last couple of years. But the highlight was the speech delivered by a third generation young family owned business entrepreneur.

He was speaking for the first time in public and that too in an event held outside his home country. After a hesitant start he warmed up to the subject which was the journey of the family business as the reigns are eased onto the new generation with the grandfather keeping a dictatorial but benevolent eye on the day to day affairs. Every generation starts from the bottom of the pyramid working their way up until the patriarch decides it’s time to move to the next level. As the story unfolded, the audience listened in rapt attention wondering how each generation has built upon the foundations laid six decades back with humble beginnings, now run by a large joint family of over 150 managing the enterprise successfully.

I could draw parallel to some incidents of the protagonist with our experiences with corporate behavior, complexity of the markets and the organization culture, as it shifted with each new leader entering the business. Swayed by the economic turmoil and political uncertainties, the company was buffeted in the waves up and down as if it had no direction of its own. Reflecting on my own experiences and the various case studies that came my way, life unfolded as if in slow motion reminding the lessons it left behind. The one tenet that was evident through the session was perseverant leadership that kept the family going through rough and smooth. Tough decisions taken resulted in many positive outcomes and a few that made the situation worse. What has all this got to do with the CIO?

To me the CIO leader faces such decision points a lot more frequently irrespective of whether s/he works in one industry/ company or across different ones, big or small, and agnostic of geography and lineage. The CEO is personified in the patriarch, occasionally benevolent when s/he is IT friendly, else indifferent or sometimes hostile. The CXOs pull in different directions like the family members with different priorities. Competition and the overall economy impact everyone and are thus similar in their effect.

Many IT leaders are rightly felicitated for success and contributions to the company; influencing industry trends with early adoption or innovative use of solutions. They take decisions which could potentially wreck a business function or create a setback in the short-term. Risk ability is a critical part of every leader’s armor and CIOs are expected to fail less often as compared to other business leaders.

CIOs who are able to manage across the journey are classified as successful and turnaround specialists while few suffer ignominy of the technology world. Leadership is after all a mindset and not a position. Like the grandfather, many CIOs are now well positioned to mentor fresh talent to take the mantle. But will they? That’s a story for another time.

January 18, 2011  4:16 AM

A CIO Resume

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I was reading an article on CIO resume for 2011 with some interest and a bit of cynicism when an email popped into my inbox asking for help. The sender was looking for opportunities as a CIO wanting to expand her role moving from an SME organization to a larger one. Her decade and half of experience across various companies had served her well and she felt that with the economic growth, there would be openings where she could try her skills and luck. Now whether this was providence or coincidence, I don’t know, but I started reviewing the lady’s resume against the principles in the article on my screen.

Everyone, well almost everyone has debated ad infinitum the changing role and expectations from a CIO. We all agree that in the current context, the CIO is a business technology leader driving business and efficiencies with help from technology. Contributions to top line as well as bottom line are now a rule rather than an exception. Any self-respecting CIO would vehemently defend his/ her position and seat at the management table; the discussions are no longer about what is the value, but how much.

So I was surprised to see the mail from this friend who was struggling to find an opening as a CIO. She was technically competent, had delivered most projects for her various companies, and had worked hard through the ranks and risen to head IT for a small business. All the ingredients existed that are required for movement to the next level. I reflected on the discussions with her during a few past meetings and could not find anything that would disqualify the person. So what was missing?

Opening the attachment that was the resume, I started reading. As I read through the first few lines, it was evident that she had achieved success in most of her endeavors―be it setting up MPLS enterprise networks, implementing ERP, greening data centers, virtualization, and a host of technologies. Through the years across companies, she stayed with contemporary technologies and collected a bunch of certifications like PMP, ITIL, CCNE, and MSCE to name a few. Some projects brought fame in IT publications and they were reflected prominently in the document. Is something missing?

Then I put my business hat on and restarted reading. Looked impressive; but where is the value to the enterprise, colleagues, peers, and in general, the connect to benefit that was accrued to the company? The resume lacked mention of initiative, change management, teamwork, metrics or values around the impact of the projects. As a leader, how did she work the internal and external teams towards delivering what mattered! Suddenly I felt that the person had remained enveloped in the world of technology rarely visiting the outside world of business. Her portrayal did not reflect a CIO, but a tech professional.

So I communicated my appraisal of the document advising change to ‘sell’ business alignment and what matters to business; technology is the foundation and can also be outsourced, but domain skills are valuable. Months later, another document landed in my inbox with changes; I tore my hair wondering where I missed in my communication. Maybe she struggled to find the value statement; maybe she does not know how to articulate. Many thoughts wandered through my mind.

After another chance meeting with her, I recommended that she come over for a discussion to my office and hopefully we can together unearth the value and pin it down. It’s a meeting I am awaiting as anxiously as I hope she is.

Read CIO Resume: Part II

January 11, 2011  5:18 AM

Murphy at work!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Any festive season brings with it a sense of joy, bonhomie and general feel good factor. After all, there is a planned celebration, friends getting together, family reunions, and if nothing else, some quality time with the family. We all look forward to such occasions to come. Different reasons across the world make for such gatherings, be it festivals, commemorations, faith; however, the world unites together to bring in the New Year.

Now, imagine this scenario:

New Years’ eve, and the day begins with an outage notice from the network team citing a company-wide network outage for causes unknown. The team gets down to figuring out the cause and fix, but the problem appears to be more than just a router failure. It is evident within a few hours that it’s going to be a really long day—maybe a night too—before the situation comes back to normal. So what do you do? It is evident that vendor support will be limited, and global support skeletal.

In a not too dissimilar scenario on a Saturday morning, I have seen the Operational CIO get off a meeting—not to return. On another occasion, a balanced CIO keeps tabs periodically, and on the other extreme a “strategic” CIO continues with his life as usual, knowing that the team will finally resolve the situation.

Murphy strikes when everything appears to be nice and bright with the world at large. He has a way of unsettling the best of plans of good men. These are the times for which all the plans are created, the maintenance contracts signed, and the service levels (SLA) monitored. The machinery has to crank itself up on such moments to deliver. Everyone in the team has to know what they are expected to do, including communication within the enterprise, of the situation and plan remedial action. Beyond the explicit, on such occasions, relationships work their magic. Teams with passion, understanding of the impact and ownership will always rise to any occasion.

So in such an eventuality, what is the role of the CIO? It does not matter whether the CIO is operational, strategic or balanced. Should the CIO continue with preplanned celebrations while the team toils the midnight oil? Or lend a moral shoulder to lean upon? Just get out of the way lest he becomes a pain for the team trying to solve the problem? It is important for the CIO to understand the value he will bring to the situation and decide what works best. But one of the key actions required is to communicate the impact if any to business, what are the measures being taken to minimize the adverse impact, and keep information flowing periodically to keep shortening tempers at bay.

Post incident resolution, acknowledgement of the effort along with words of merit and appreciation are definitely worth engaging in. The message it sends will ensure that when Murphy strikes again, the team will be up to the task.

January 4, 2011  7:52 AM

How do you buy?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

IT procurement has always been an activity that provides the CIO and IT staff with substantial power —that of a customer who defines the requirement, negotiates, and sweats the poor sales person through each interaction. There are horror stories of negotiations beginning post midnight, as well as of joyous ones with a handshake happening across the table in less than an hour. In a few cases, this negotiation is the role of a specialist IT buyer or purchase department.

The recent past has seen a lot of rigor in this process, with expectations of better deals and discounts driven by tightening budgets. In many cases, Finance teams were thrust upon the CIO to validate or take over the negotiation. The underlying assumption is that Finance has better negotiation skills, and they will fiscally protect the enterprise’s interests. It is another matter that these individuals (with best of interest) had little knowledge of the overall value propositions on the IT solutions. Another angle discussed is of governance, elimination of temptation driven by large value transactions, and keeping everything above board. 

In the early days of my career, one of the executives charged irregularities in IT purchases. I welcomed the conducted audit, which validated the IT departments’ innocence and above board dealings. This set into motion a change in process with the induction of another coworker from Finance during the buying process. While she was in the initial stages an observer more than a contributor, over a period of time, she was able to start adding value. The cast aspersions were no longer a talking point, but collaboration was considering the perceived transparency that it brought to the process.

There have been not so pleasant experiences too for some CIOs facing “interference” from other functions, as they do not understand (nor make an effort to). Thus the strained relationships between IT, vendors, and largely the finance/purchase team leads to a lose-lose proposition for the enterprise—with delays, inefficient negotiations, and missing line items in the overall project charter or Bill of Material. Everyone finds this an ordeal, but is unable to change the outcome, as the value propositions are not understood.

If your organization is functioning well without involvement from other functions in IT procurement, periodically review the perception of how you are seen doing that same. It would help you address issues before they become a talking point. On the other hand, if your organization does require purchase decisions to involve a larger group, get them into the discussion from day 1. Else you may face frustrating moments in the future. Their involvement and participation will be a function of whether they are measured on this. Make sure that KRAs are aligned; else they have no reason to devote time beyond what makes them win and look good.

I also had the privilege in a company to have senior finance personnel sit through tech vendor presentations nodding knowledgeably for a while. Then they would start making excuses not to participate, or get off the meeting as some important call took them away.

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