by Ade McCormack

Time to be a Chief Wisdom Officer

Dec 12, 20115 mins

I often draw a parallel between the IT industry and medicine. We have a lot to learn from an industry that has had several millennia to mature.

My observations have largely focused on service comparisons. In this piece I am going to keep to the medical theme but take a slightly different perspective.

Firstly, let’s take a look at how Western medicine appears to operate. There is a strong focus on illness and functional diagnosis. In other words the practitioner waits for the user to complain.

The complaint triggers a diagnosis followed by treatment; usually of the symptoms only. The user is broadly happy that she no longer has pain, but is likely to need help again soon because the underlying issue remains unresolved.

This is in line with how some IT functions serve their users. Wait until the users make a request and then deal with that specific request, sometimes in isolation of the bigger picture.

Often a lack of interest/capability in offering a consultative service leads to the users getting exactly, or as close as possible to, what they have requested. This might optimistically be interpreted as a ‘customer is always right’ service ethic.

Let’s now move further East. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) there is a strong focus on wellness and holistic diagnosis. In ancient times Doctors were only paid when their patients were healthy.

Thus they developed an approach that not only cured the symptoms but also the underlying problem.

The holistic approach of TCM is based on the concept of life force energy. You may hear the term chi, qi or ki in this respect. In the West it is sometimes referred to as mojo (a term often used by Austin Powers).

For those who struggle with this concept (or are simply not trapped in a romanticised Sixties bubble) just think blood.

Thus the TCM practitioner is not solely focused on issues associated with specific functions such as leg, sight or heart, but on the flow of energy between and through these key functions.

In essence it is the role of the TCM practitioner to keep the energy flows unblocked. This is the underlying theme of acupuncture and acupressure.

Organisations today are typically structured to reflect the Western functional viewpoint (finance, sales, HR and so on).

Hence the departmental structure with its associated budgeting and leadership representation in the senior management team. In turn the IT function responds in a similarly functional manner.

I propose that the CIO takes a more TCM approach.

It is not difficult to see that the organisation’s life force is its data, information, knowledge and even wisdom; and in particular the unimpeded flow of these around the organisation to where it is needed, when it is needed.

In fact blockages to this flow are likely to lead to sluggish and poor decision making. Ultimately they may lead to corporate mal-governance; both extremely serious conditions.

So focusing on the functional needs of the users may well keep them happy (or at least minimise their hostility), but this approach is unlikely to benefit your organisation in the long run.

Thus I am proposing that you as a CIO should make it your responsibility to ensure the corporate life force flows freely between and through the business functions.

You could strongly argue that I am not covering new ground here. The IT function has delivered such functionality through the network and middleware for many decades. Indeed the IT function has great expertise in the management of the life force infrastructure (veins and arteries).

But I would argue that there is not enough attention on the life force itself.

As I have mentioned many times, CIO doesn’t stand for Chief ‘IT Manager’ Officer. And even the ‘Information’ label is a little passé, given the growing focus on knowledge.

Plus I suspect wisdom management (how you turn information and knowledge into better business decisions) is just around the corner.

So I encourage you to look beyond the infrastructure and focus your attention on unclogging and even widening the life flow pathways of your organisation. Unclogging takes the IT function into process engineering and also into the realm of social anthropology.

Widening requires a focus on business intelligence and collaborative technologies.

In fact these areas are natural new homes for the IT function now that the Cloud is absorbing technology management. Your technologists can thus morph into digitally-savvy business consultants.

Their advice will be holistic in nature and that will occasionally mean telling users that their specific need is not for the greater good. Much like a herbalist, your people will proactively focus on the wellness of the organisation rather than reactively ‘fixing on demand’.

Without wishing to sound hippyish, I would encourage CIOs to adopt a New Age approach to the role of digital leadership.

In a post-industrial Cloud-covered world, taking a more holistic approach to serving your organisation might well clear up the perception/condition that you are the main blockage in the organisation’s progress.