by Michael Schrage

Readers sound off on CIO leadership, outsourcing and the IT community’s fading commitment to quality.

Apr 15, 20046 mins
IT Leadership

Reading the responses to my column via e-mail and CIO’s online Add a Comment inbox brings to mind Mark Twain’s venom-tipped reaction to the reelection of a particularly egregious scoundrel: “The people have spoken-the bastards!”

Not that any of my readers’ insights are illegitimate in any way, of course, but it is fascinating to observe what gets the CIO community hot and bothered and what wins its compliments. So this column is about what I’ve been learning from your feedback.

The obvious problem with columns like this is that the sampling of opinion is so skewed. The Outraged, Infuriated and Upset who think you a moron are far more likely to comment than the Nice Column folks. Indeed, “Liked the column” e-mailers are lovely-but reveal little-while the readers who think your cerebellum is a total waste of neurons vituperatively go to great lengths to explain why your ideas are moronic. Sometimes they’ve even got a point.

The best feedback comes from people who have a story to relay, an experience to share or a question to ask that forces me to rethink why I wrote what I wrote. Because this is a column about the challenge of IT implementations, rather than the wonderfulness of Big IT Ideas, you have to take people’s real world observations more seriously.

The readers who respond to this column are typically intelligent, articulate, concerned about their professional futures and frustrated by how difficult it is to work productively with their business counterparts. My columns are often criticized not for sounding jaundiced or cynical but for not being cynical enough!

Intriguingly, the columns that get the most intense feedback are the ones in which I argue that CIO leadership means having the courage to decide where IT shouldn’t be a leader in organizational change. Few things undermine legitimacy quicker than trying to do too much. Overextended IT organizations typically end up with the worst of both worlds: overpromised expectations and underdelivered implementations.

That sort of CIO critique drew a lengthy diatribe from Jim Wells, a CIO with a large health-care organization in the Midwest (reprinted with his kind permission), that captured the sentiments of many stalwart CIO champions. Wells wrote:

“CIOs who have not established policies and procedures to prevent departments from going their own way are not CIOs; they are directors or managers, whatever they call themselves.

“CIOs [who] do not report to the CEO are not CIOs; they are directors with a fancy title and salary.

“CIOs who do not enable (now that is another buzzword that academic and consulting types love but has no real meaning) are not CIOs. CIOs should run for office as that is how they must spend their days in order to stay employed. The prime role of a CIO-for those who have never served in the trenches-is to determine what is needed, wrap this into a flexible strategy, present this strategy to his boss (the CEO) and then present it to the executive (not) team, the executive steering committee (said governing body duly formed by the CIO, chaired by the CIO, and a fully representative body of all disciplines).

“As the ’guru of technology,’ it is the role of the CIO to introduce business change through the use of technologies-not just the darling of the e-commerce world’s current buzzword, but all technologies. If crucial changes need to be made to basic technologies in order to take advantage of newer ones, so be it.

“The CIO is a mentor, internal consultant and teacher. If the CIO is not comfortable with all of these, then get a job selling used cars.”

Mr. Wells did not respond when I pointed out that his rather idealistic RFP for top IT executives would effectively exclude over half the CIOs who read this magazine.

But that obscures the larger point: The post-bubble, outsource-driven, but-just-how-much-should-IT-matter? world has created a level of fear in the higher echelons of the IT ranks that makes Edward Yourdon’s ominous and terribly timed Decline and Fall of the American Programmer (a book that came out in 1992 before the Internet boom) read like a happy prequel to Who Moved My Cheese?

Everybody still agrees that IT remains a growth industry that continually renews, refreshes and extends the business capabilities of the enterprise. It’s just that IT may no longer be a growth industry for IT staff as individuals. In other words, there’s a feeling that-pincered between India and automation-their IT future is more like the “silicon collar” than a profitable profession with harder work, less security and, of course, less money than before.

Even worse, IT workers are feeling that their CIOs have given up on them as partners. Look at the comments posted after my “Memo from the Future” (see and one can practically smell the unhappiness. These aren’t primarily CIOs responding, mind you; they’re the people who report to and work with the CIOs.

What’s the takeaway for the CIO reader? That the IT community’s commitment to quality implementation seems to be fading. People are becoming more ambivalent about investing themselves in their IT implementations.

Why? Many hard-working IT people fear that quality implementations will make them less indispensable to the organization rather than more so. They’re afraid that their CIOs are using them. Indeed, quality implementations make outsourcing the implemented app or system easier to accomplish.

Even worse, they feel that their clients and customers are looking at them less as partners than as expensive “necessary evils” that must be tolerated. At least, until the implementation is complete or the whole thing can be outsourced or automated.

The idea, the notion, the very possibility that an implementation becomes both a source of insight and a platform for future enhancements and refinements is ignored. Somehow, the belief that once an app, a system or a capability is “designed,” all that’s left is the nitty-gritty of “implementation” has become a dogma in certain digital circles. Please reread Mr. Wells’s comments; implementation is irrelevant.

The people who are sending me e-mail and posting comments are in pain. They are feeling betrayed by their bosses and by their clients. They’re questioning their economic value as “implementers” in an era where implementation is overwhelmingly perceived as a “cost.” They’re worried. So am I. You should be too.