The CIO journey to relevancy begins today

Like the Beat Generation exemplified in Jack Kerouac's On The Road, IT professionals are constantly looking for more.

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One of my favorite books of all time is “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. Often referred to as the bible of the Beat Generation, the acclaimed book touches on so many important concepts, such as the desire for adventure and the celebration of freedom. It also gave us some of the most powerful, regularly cited quotes of today. Here is one of my favorites:

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

When I was thinking about what to name my IDG Contributor Network blog, the themes of Kerouac’s book were top of mind. To me, there is this uncanny parallel between Kerouac’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, and the IT leaders of today. In the book, Sal spends about 99 percent of his time on the road describing exactly what’s going on during his travels. But beneath the surface, Sal and the whole Beat Generation represented in the book, are looking and longing for something more than what is in front of them: they’re restless, dissatisfied and searching for more.

In many ways this aptly describes us, IT professionals, as we are constantly looking for more. We are searching for validation, seeking respect and longing to be relevant within our organizations. We are yearning for a seat at that strategic table. We are on “The Road to IT Relevance,” which is fittingly the name of my blog.

In my last post, I discussed the importance of bringing the business acumen from Harvard Business School (or any business school for that matter) into the IT world. I shared Michael Porter’s model on generic strategies, suggesting that we as IT leaders must make the choice between being cost leaders or differentiated leaders in how we lead our IT organizations. I concluded with the statement that though the IT department needs to be cost-sensitive, to put itself in the most strategic position and create relevancy, IT needs to focus on differentiation.

This sentiment is echoed in Jack Trout’s book “Differentiate or Die,” in which he postulates that you either have a product, service or organization that you can say is different, or you don't have much at all. In today’s rapidly evolving technological world—impacted by the consumerization of technology and mega trends like cloud, social, mobile and data—IT can no longer sit back and wait for the business to dictate what needs to be done. They can no longer strictly advise on technology purchases. Rather, IT has to figure out how to reach favorable business outcomes and differentiate itself by focusing on delivering business value.

For the last 50 years, the value of IT has been measured by its ability to keep IT running optimally. But today, that’s table stakes. Much as we don’t give thought to a switch being able to turn on a light, we don’t expect IT to encounter problems. Unfortunately, many IT professionals are still stuck in that mindset that their value only comes from running IT, providing stability and controlling cost. They don’t realize their value actually comes from what they can do for the business to make it more efficient and change outcomes.

I believe there are four chief principles IT leaders should follow to start emerging as strategic assets for the business, principles that were echoed by several CIOs I interviewed during research for this post (portions of those conversations are reflected below).

1. Imagine for a moment that you are standing in the middle of a cornfield, with each stalk approximately six feet tall. Chances are you can’t see anything more than the stalk directly in front of you. Now picture you build a tower in that cornfield and you climb to the top so you are slightly above the stalk. Suddenly, your perspective is different. You can now locate the barn, the tractor—you’ve gained a higher perspective. Similarly, IT needs to gain fresh perspective and move up in their thinking to think more like the business.

“To increase its value to the business, IT must stop thinking of itself as IT and start thinking of itself as an enabler of business outcomes. While technology can be a strategic and competitive advantage, IT leaders should focus on how it can be leveraged to create business value.” Kevin Rota, CIO Americas, Dassault

2. Year after year, CIOs are asked to cut their budgets by 5%, 10%, even 15%. That’s because many businesses and accounting teams consider IT to be a huge black hole that sucks money out of the organization. They believe that they sink millions of dollars into IT but never see or understand the value for these expenses. As such, IT needs to demonstrate that they are advising on the right services at the right level of quality at the right price. This proves that they remain cost-sensitive while focusing on differentiation.

“When our company faced challenges during the last recession, IT was not only able to increase our stability and reliability, but we were also able to aid the business in reducing less obvious expenses. At the same time we were able to improve the client experience, streamline order processing, increase efficient call handling and retain our most valuable asset—our people.” Susan Kifer, CIO/VP Information Technology at Simonds International

3. IT departments need to begin with the end in mind (a notion Stephen Covey introduces in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). It is something that I reference very often. In other words, they need to be clear on the business outcomes they are trying to develop and work backwards to arrive at the IT solution. It’s about reverse engineering solutions so that it becomes clear that the investment is worth it.

If we are business people first, who start with the customer’s experience in mind and then work back from there, we can start unlocking the power of innovation and collaboration while improving business outcomes.” Dave Finnegan, CIO, ORVIS

4. It’s not uncommon for today’s IT department to be viewed mainly as a service provider to the business. But to follow the differentiated model, IT leaders need to emerge as trusted strategic advisors for the business, thereby extending their value to the organization and becoming a key enabler to the line of business executives.

“Today, many IT leaders struggle to become truly relevant. Yet, that struggle can be overcome. Relevancy will happen when IT and the business, working together, develop strategically aligned goals and objectives. If we work as partners, we can maximize our resources, improve results and create transparency.” Marianne Doran Collins, CIO, Johnson & Wales

“On the Road” was a mesmerizing tale that took readers on a memorable journey; but now it’s time for CIOs to go on their own journey—the journey to find relevance. Stay tuned for the second part of this blog as I dive into each of these four principles in greater detail!

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