At the IT Directors Forum this year I attended a session by Gartner, one of the themes of which was ‘how does the CIO increase his/her influence in the business’. Gartner and many other organisations have been paddling this canoe for a few years now, and I’m starting to think that it’s an idea that’s past its sell-by date.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that it is becoming irrelevant because there has been some change in the tide, that IT leaders are now accepted as a fundamental part of the senior management of the business. That is patently not the case in the majority of organisations. There are many examples where the CIO or IT Director has an ongoing and valuable part to play in the running of the organisation but this is still a relative rarity.
No, I think it’s losing relevance rapidly because of the increasing commoditisation of a lot of what the IT department does. As a service provider the IT department can hope and aspire to be a ‘trusted partner’, in the same way that the man that maintains your car can be a valuable source of information. If you trust his opinion and ask his advice, he might tell you that he replaces your brake pads more often than he would expect, and that you might be a little heavy on the gas and the brake. This advice could save you money on maintenance and fuel economy, but the relationship has to be good for this advice to be offered and accepted - if it’s unsolicited then it can be seen as extremely presumptuous, and the response ‘mind your own business’ might be forthcoming.
It’s time to wake up and realise that the IT leader isn’t driving the car. There are times and places where the unique viewpoint of the IT leader is valuable and should be sought out, and (as is a common theme of this blog) the wise business takes the time to involve this important partner. But the idea that ‘increasing influence’ is an important or necessary activity is now rather self-serving and speaks of personal ambition rather than corporate improvement.
Matt Ballantine makes a related (and as usual, more eloquent) point in his recent blog post, and links to other articles that are well worth a read if you are interested in exploring this idea further.
How to publish a proper list of Social Business ROI examples. -
In this blog post, Olivier Blanchard takes us through what is a pretty comprehensive description of how to document ROI for social media / social business projects. In fact what he does is to reiterate the rules for reporting ROI for pretty much any effort.A key piece of advice in this post is not to rely on anecdotal evidence. If you want to retain any kind of credibility at all, you need to be 100% sure of your source data, don’t put yourself in a position where somebody can do an hour’s research and show your case to be built on sand. This is your career we’re talking about!Sometimes you come across a piece like this that teaches you a lot of lessons in a very short space of time, and you just have to share it.
What’s the most important thing an IT department does? It’s important to maintain systems, ‘keep the lights on’ as they say, and to resolve problems in a professional manner. This is essentially managing the technology. But in order to add value, we should concentrate less on the ‘T’ in IT. The ‘I’ is where the function makes a difference, by delivering the right information to the right people, quickly. They can then make faster, better, more informed decisions. This reduces costs, both the measurable cost that comes as a result of poorly focused work, and the opportunity cost that comes with making poor choices. It can and should also lead to happier customers, who see an organisation working well, with their finger on the pulse.
This isn’t always straightforward. Many organisations don’t get this, and treat their IT departments as custodians of the technology and nothing more. Many IT departments don’t get it either, or can’t communicate their potential value in an effective way.
When I was thinking about this the other day, a whimsical thought occurred to me as I considered ‘corporate IT’. The word ‘corporate’ is from the latin corporatus, from the root corpus, or body. If you consider the organisation to be a body, the technology, the networks and systems are the organs and arteries, that exist to move the information oxygen around. They are only there for that purpose. It is information that allows the body to make choices, move forward, achieve its aims.
Allowing the IT department to forget about the ‘I’, is to starve the whole entity of a vital function. Unfortunately the Information is often forgotten in the shadow of the Technology.
Since 2007 we have been through a turbulent economic time, with credit crunch, followed by recession, followed by (in the UK at least) a Government seemingly hell-bent on managing a contraction of the economy rather than fighting to grow it. In business this environment has been tough. Over the last few years I’ve had my share of tough decisions to make, had endless conversations with colleagues telling them how we’re on top of things and that things would work out for the best, and felt the frustration in myself, and from colleagues, when they don’t work out quite as well as we’d all hoped.
Still, we’re still here and still have problems to manage. I’m going to talk about the our IT functions specifically now - we have shared in the pain and been asked to find cost savings, cut budgets, show ROI in the weeks and months rather than years. Is there anything IT Directors can do to keep contributing to the success of the business despite the pressures on budgets?
I believe it’s possible to add value and be a vehicle for success as an IT department but it takes courage, discipline and a willingness to change.
It’s important to be able to
Some of these will cause problems at first, nobody likes to hear ‘no’, especially from a support function. But consistently applied, allied with judicious technology choices, these principles will win respect and bring success for all concerned in the long term.
Last year I wrote a post about branding, in which I stated my opinion that it’s important to consider how you are perceived. Nothing I have seen since has caused me to reconsider that opinion, indeed it’s reinforced every time I talk to someone who ‘didn’t realise that x did y’. A brief chat with a colleague elicited the following gem. ’You have a brand, whether you like it or not. The thing you get to decide is, are you going to manage it?’
Whether you are thinking individually, as a management team, as a department or as an organisation, make sure you’re managing your brand - it’ll pay you back.
Nick Heath at TechRepublic wrote an article in December in which he wondered whether many of the current crop of CIOs are the right people to take their organisations forward. He quotes a Gartner VP who suggests that many CIOs have been either clearing up mess or pushing through major ERP or standardisation programmes, and they’re not often the same people those organisations need to start harnessing the power of social media and mobile. ’Stop being order takers executing the demands of the board’, is what he said (echoing a blog post of mine from about a year ago), and start helping the organisation get better value from those technologies.
It’s a good article but it misses an important point. The average CIO, according to most of the surveys I have seen, is 47 years old. If you’re 47 today, you were at school until 1983 and maybe university until the mid-eighties. Computers started appearing in schools in large numbers from 1985 onwards. Email didn’t become widespread until the mid nineties, by which time these folk were in their 30s. A CIO who is 47+ didn’t grow up in a connected world. Of course, to be a CIO they have more than likely embraced a lot of the technology and make good use of the social tools that have appeared in the last few years. But your formative years are just that, and there is a big difference between a 30 year old who has always had personal (including mobile) computing power at his disposal, a 40 year old who never knew anything other than computers as he grew into the world of work, and a 50 year old who is always keeping up with the kids.
I’m generalising of course. I know of several people that are proudly 50+ and exploit social media and mobile technology in fantastic, inspiring ways. I’m not suggesting CIOs should have an age limit (not until I’m retired, anyway), and the fact that I am nearer 40 than 50 is undoubtedly a factor in how I have formed this opinion(!), but I’m confident it’s an opinion that bears closer scrutiny.
As organisations line up their next CIO, the candidate’s ability to engage with and harness social tools should be a factor, and at that point we’re definitely playing the generation game.
Whether you believe there is such a thing as ‘big data’ or not, Dave Feinlieb at Forbes.com has created this interesting view of the products and services that make up the landscape as of 2012. I wonder how many of these will still be there at the end of 2013?
All organisations are to a greater or lesser extent dependent on their supply chain. Poor performance by suppliers can bring a business to a standstill, even to the point of failure.
In an IT context, this is no different. Our resellers, implementers, infrastructure suppliers, they are all key to delivering a good service. So, we use balanced scorecards to measure potential suppliers to ensure that the features of their product or service match our carefully-researched requirements. We show these to our internal stakeholders to show that we’ve done our homework. And this always results in a perfectly-delivered solution, right? Unfortunately that is rarely the case. One reason for this is that our biggest motivation when it comes to choosing a supplier always seems to be price. We’re under no illusions about the return on investment required, so this is a natural behaviour, but it’s not always logical.
I believe it’s vitally important to pick your suppliers carefully. Key suppliers must be managed as delicately as key customers, as they really need to understand how they fit into your process. They must be aware of the ‘end requirement’, for example if you’re buying a sharepoint implementation, you’re not buying it because you fancy some sharepoint in your estate, you’re buying it because you need to manage information assets more effectively. That aim must be in the supplier’s mind, and the project isn’t complete until you’ve got the end requirement.
Choose suppliers that are really going to work with you to get to your goal, not box-shifters that leave the crate at the door and drive away with a cheery ‘good-luck’… in that case no matter how much money you save on the purchase you’ve got a poor deal. Good suppliers know that price drives the first sale, but perception of value drives the second, third, fourth etc.
Invest time and effort in choosing your suppliers, you’ll get it back over and over again.
Following on from my last blog post about the rise of local search, this is another lesson from the school-of-stating-the-bleeding-obvious. As a comparitively old fogey I haven’t used YouTube other than to see video I would otherwise have no access to. Old programmes, specialist video from science and technology institutions, clips for the kids. It’s only this year I’ve really seen it as the fantastic educational resource it is.
Here’s my example. A few weeks ago I bought a Mazda MX-5, a small roadster, as a project over the winter. I’m no mechanic, but I can fix basic things and thought it would be fun when the summer came. One of the things that was wrong with it when I bought it was the electric aerial, which didn’t retract all the way. I did the sensible thing and googled ‘MX-5 antenna replacement’, which took me to several sites, one of which was this one, which showed I didn’t necessarily need to replace the whole mechanism.
Brilliant stuff. I bought the replacement mast, followed these instructions and I’d fixed this problem for about 25% of the cost of a complete replacement aerial complete with motor and no doubt 10% of the cost of a garage job.
This is happening in all areas of expertise, including the IT world. A colleague of mine recently showed me his web site, where he has dozens of instructional videos on various technologies, such as MS SQL server and Photoshop.
Here he gives an introduction to the basics of Fuzzy Lookups in Microsoft Integration Services
Being able to see how something is done is so much more powerful than reading it in a book - good written instructions are rare, because they are difficult to produce. ’Here, let me show you’ really works.
When we produce training or handover documentation for delivery of new systems to customers, internal or external, do we ever think about using this type of collateral? I think it’s an underused method - it has to be done well, but if it is it can be phenomenally useful.
Walking through a city centre the other night, I checked tripadvisor on my smartphone to see if I could find a place to eat in the immediate vicinity. I found a place that suited my wallet, and that had great reviews, in a matter of minutes (and it was fantastic, too). It’s almost second nature to do this now, and I hadn’t realised that until I saw this excellent infographic. If it’s second nature for this techie chap that’s past 40, it’s going to be a no-brainer for most 20-somethings. Small businesses take note!
As today is Remembrance Sunday, a quote from Winston Churchill is apposite.
"When you are going through hell, keep going"
A timely reminder in tough times, that the only way is forward!