If you're a frustrated CIO struggling to get your company's business side to embrace IT as a critical strategic partner rather than just a cost center, the answer may lie in altering your approach to IT strategy. In the current issue of the journal Strategy +Business from management consultancy Booz Inc., Booz consultants Eduardo Alvarez and Srini Raghavan have one idea: a four-step road map based on the company's corporate strategy and the capabilities it delivers.
At most companies, Alvarez and Raghavan point out, allocation of IT funding is a fragmented process: requests for IT projects are usually submitted on an ad-hoc basis, each with its own business case and executed in isolation from other IT endeavors. IT execution ends up looking like a collection of islands. Moreover, new architectures are often grafted onto existed ones, resulting in Frankenstein-like systems that are unnecessarily complex and inflexible. On top of all this, CIOs may be all too familiar with the business units that cling to old systems, reluctant to retire them and embrace new ones built to replace them. These are the kinds of things that make IT look like a mere cost center to business leaders, say the authors.
They propose the "road map" as an alternative that can help CIOs design a cohesive overall IT strategy based on the way their organizations create value. Done right, it can help CIOs "recast" the IT function. There are four stages to the road map, in each of which you, the CIO, and your partners in the C-suite (this is key; more on it later) answer a fundamental question about IT vis-à-vis the business:
1. What capabilities matter?
2. How do you prioritize?
3. What's the right sequence?
4. What support do you need?
I want to focus on the naturally critical first stage. First, it's important to note that by "capabilities" Alvarez and Raghavan do not mean IT capabilities. They're talking about the company's capabilities, which they define as "the ability to reliably and consistently deliver a specified outcome relevant to your business." (Think, for instance, of timely delivery as a critical capability of your local pizza place.) Every company has many capabilities. As CIO, you need to identify the three to six that matter most to your firm's success. And you need to do it with the business leaders. Physically get together to articulate the corporate strategy and agree on these key capabilities, because this is what should inform your IT design and investment. "Senior executives...and the IT leaders can accomplish this only if they work together," the authors write (emphasis added). It's a point they repeat throughout the article.
The other reason I call attention to the first step is that it's here that you as CIO have a signal opening to assert not only your IT expertise but also your wisdom about how the company can succeed. People talk all the time about the CIO's need to understand and talk the language of business. But Alvarez and Raghavan ask you to do something I haven't seen much elsewhere: don't just recommend: push back. Inform and challenge the others on the executive team on their choices. "By asking for a more explicit view of these key strategic levers and offering [the CIO's assessment, you] bring a crucial element to the decision -- the understanding of how technology can help create and capture advantage."
I'm leaving the details of the other, equally important, stages of the road map for you to read. I highly recommend that you read "Road Map to Relevance" because it's a fairly quick read, clearly written as a practical guide. The authors frequently address CIOs directly (with several phrases like "if you are a CIO..." throughout) with tips and counsel. What I find the most compelling about the piece is that, more than most of the stacks of CIO advice I've read, it asks you, the CIO, to do more. It's also refreshingly candid about stating that it won't be easy to redefine IT for the rest of the organization, especially if your company is less than enlightened about IT's strategic potential. It may feel like a steep uphill journey. You might even have to invite yourself to discussions to which the business side didn't think to ask. "If you are a chief information officer seeking to adopt this sort of road map," the authors write, "you may find yourself alone at first." They continue:
You will need to influence the culture and governance systems of the larger company. You might, for example, seek to include the IT road map process in annual strategic planning exercises, set up joint business-IT governance councils, or establish new metrics for the performance and relevance of IT projects. You will need to insist on broad business participation in high-level IT decisions [emphasis added].
In short, as CIO you not only have to be proactive, you may have to do a lot of the work yourself. You know how sometimes at the start of a friendship, you're the one who always initiates getting together; you're always the one to call. That might be you as CIO. You may feel like that guy trying to sell some novel message to the masses, the lone voice from the wilderness. But if history is a guide (oh, I don't know -- Galileo, Ghandi, or even Jeff Bezos?), voices from the wilderness have often ended up recognized as great leaders.