Tips to help CIOs 'manage the white space'

Effective CIOs need to help align their organizations' functional and business leaders so they can move in the same direction.

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Something about the CIO role demands comparisons to Greek mythological figures.

For years, I likened the role to Sisyphus, who was condemned to rolling a huge rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. But lately, I have a new figure in mind: Cassandra. She made the critical error of spitting on Zeus, who gave her the power of prophesy, but also the curse of never being believed. (Cassandra eventually went insane, by the way, so you all have that to look forward to.)

New CIO competency

michael mathias

As Michael Mathias, CIO of Blue Shield of California, puts it, "As CIOs, we have the luck and the curse to see the enterprise in all of its beauty and its ugliness. There really is nobody else who has this opportunity. We can see the gaps, the opportunities, the history and the future. It is our responsibility to bring that perspective to the table; we have to have the courage to let everyone see when the baby is ugly."

I call this skill, "managing the white space," and I place it high on the list of competencies of the modern CIO.

Wolfgang Richter, former CIO of PWC, defines the challenge of managing white space this way: "Change at the operating layer requires that executive and business unit management are completely aligned and committed to the vision, and what is required to achieve it." CIOs who hope to implement the technologies necessary for productivity and profit have to find a way to manage the white space.

How do you get a committee of executives, all focused on their own vertical function or P&L, to look up and in the same direction at your company's digital future? How do you overhaul, say, the customer engagement process, when each business unit in a sprawling enterprise has its own long-tenured way of doing things? How do you create global standards in a company built on regional markets?

These are tough questions, to be sure, but smart CIOs find answers.

CIO white space strategies

Michael Mathias uses the concept of business architecture to get vertical leaders to agree on a standard set of processes.

"We had been running customer service differently from business to business, so we used business architecture to help the business define the 'what,'" says Mathias. "What does the business want to be? What do they want to do? The business architecture showed us our strengths and gaps, and how to prioritize. Before business architecture, we had a siloed approach with tremendous redundancy. Now, it is much easier for us to agree on how to direct our resources in the right way."

When Kathy McElligott, now CIO and CTO of McKesson, was CIO of Emerson, she managed the white space by introducing a Business IT Strategy Board. The board included roughly 25 executives from all major functions and businesses in the $25 billion company, and it was a result of McElligott’s realization that she and her peers needed to think differently. "We had sensors in most of our products, and our solutions were getting much more software driven, but I wasn't sure that IT was working on the right projects for where our business was headed."

By convening the Business IT Strategy Board, McElligott and Emerson's executives were able to focus on big picture topics, including information security and the digital customer experience.

Other companies hire Chief Business Process Officers, or executives dedicated to managing the white space, who function as key partners to the CIO. In these companies, the CIO has an important ally in getting all of those vertically oriented leaders on the same page.

Do you believe managing the white space is a critical CIO skill? How are you moving all of your executive partners in the same direction? 

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