Information Technology Management with a Purpose

May 10 2015   8:57AM GMT

When CEOs Falter on Technology Deployment

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

IT Strategy
Key management

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.

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