by Susan Cramm

Why CIOs Should “Parent” Their Enterprise’s Various Business Partners

Jun 15, 20024 mins
IT Leadership

How to focus the IT agenda while you gain the reputation of a yea-sayer.

At a recent conference, a CIO leaned over and confessed to me that he has a “terminal case of saying yes.” My response? It’s important to say yes—in the right way. The key to CIO success is figuring out how to focus the IT agenda while you gain the reputation of a yea-sayer.

As a rapidly aging parent of a 2-year-old, I will use an analogy near and dear to my heart: CIOs should manage business partner relationships as they would raise children. Your job is to create good IT citizens. Like children, the line managers in the business are self-absorbed—and rightfully so. They don’t care a whit about being responsible consumers of IT assets; they know what they want from you and don’t believe their personal desires may not serve the company’s interests in the long term.

Parents help their children learn how to take care of themselves. CIOs should help their business partners “move out” of the centralized IT provisioning house3where the IS group does everything for them—so that the organization can transition to the fiduciary model of IT management.

In this organizational model, business units are responsible for the “what” of IT, while the IS group is responsible for the “how.” (for more detail, see Why You Should Follow the Fiduciary Model of IT Management). As you help your business partners move away from dependence on IT and toward organizational interdependence, here are some tips on how to make IT parenting work.

Appeal to a higher authority. This is akin to parents using religious principles to shift the attention away from themselves. Use the company’s business strategy as your guidepost, and facilitate a planning process that identifies and funds the most important IT projects. Get the CFO to establish and enforce tough investment rules. By positioning the CFO as the bad guy, you’ll be able to form good-guy relationships with your business counterparts to help them get what they want—while ensuring that they play by the rules.

Be a good role model. Be respectful and easy to work with. Don’t assume that you know line executives’ business any more than they know yours. Nothing will get a business partner crankier than convoluted approval processes, inadequate basic IT services and your inability to deliver quality software on time and on budget.

Give the business managers tasks. Set up an approval process that protects your IS organization from heavy involvement until projects have been vetted for strategic value. One CIO has taught his internal customers to hold back project requests until they get the justification right. Another executive has instituted a project discovery phase that focuses on Why and What questions, and postpones any heavy How analysis until after the project has been approved. Improve the odds of project success, and at the same time test business execs’ commitment, by requiring that they ante up project resources.

Educate and hold them accountable. Put your employees in client-facing roles so they can help business partners select the best course of action. Use pilot projects and prototypes to expose soft spots early. If your business partners decide to do something foolish, ensure that they see the consequences. For example, if they hire their own contractors, insist that they agree, in writing, to do the maintenance and pay for integration. You hope they’ll decide against “running away from home”—but if they do leave, they’ll be smarter when they return.

Choose your boundaries and battles carefully. Some issues are worth going to the mat. Most are not. Give your business partners the freedom to make some IT decisions by giving them an IT allowance and a curfew. Link the granting of this freedom with the responsibility to play by the rules that have been set for value, standards, security, process and economies of scale. On the other hand, if you are trying to prevent a questionable million-dollar investment, it’s worth digging in your heels until somebody puts forth the effort required to make the investment pay.

CIOs have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that value is realized from their company’s IT investments. They are able to fulfill that responsibility through the provision of value-added services supported by a set of rules—that is, policies, processes and accountabilities. By defining these rules correctly, you can perfect that highest skill of parenting: making no sound a whole lot more like yes.