by Laurianne McLaughlin

What Keeps Top CIOs Sleepless

May 01, 20074 mins
IT Leadership

What technology keeps you up at night? That’s not the right question to ask CIOs anymore, I’ve learned this week at CIO’s leadership conference here in Huntington Beach, California.  

At the last CIO conference I attended, about a year ago, I got plenty of quick, and interesting answers to this question of what keeps you up at night: Security. Wireless. Getting out of the high cost of Microsoft office. Rolling out VoIP.

But not this time.

You’re asking the wrong question, one CIO told me over lunch. This CIO wasn’t alone. This was a theme explored repeatedly during the conference, after keynote speaker Jim Collins, author of the business tome Good to Great, brought it up — noting that someone brought in to lead a troubled company shouldn’t be asked what he’s going to do to transform it. He should be asked who he wants to have on his bus, for the ride to solving that problem.

Collins has his finger on your concerns, from what I heard. Because almost every CIO I met at this conference, when I asked him or her about current challenges, said this:  “People.”

It’s hard to retain mid-level staff people, one CIO for a healthcare provider told me. It’s hard enough to get them in the door from colleges, and then once you do, you have to create some internal competition to keep them engaged, or else they leave quickly.

It’s hard to find some technology specialists, like SAN admins for virtualized storage projects, a CIO for a Silicon Valley finance institution told me. And if you train them up internally, they just hop to another job at the first chance, he added.

It’s hard to recruit people to come work in southern New Jersey, a CIO for a distribution company told me, because even if they’re talented and tired of working in New York city, they want a raise when they switch jobs, and I can’t afford to top the NYC salaries.

It’s hard to imagine, one aspiring CIO of an energy company told me, what my company will do in 5 years when most of the workforce retires and we lose all that institutional knowledge.

People, not technology, are keeping you up at night. Not one of you told me wireless this time. Not one of you wanted to gripe about Microsoft.

There’s good and bad news in this. The good news? For those of you who answered those middle of the night calls in the 1990’s when IT things “broke” all the time, arriving at this day and age where operational excellence is simply a given should be satisfying. You know how to keep the networks running. You know how to avoid the hardware disasters.

The bad news: That skill set, hard-won, doesn’t make you stand out anymore.

What CEOs and your other line-of-business peers want from you now is much more.

They want you to maintain that operational excellence, while spotting ways that your company can, as Calico Corners CIO Janet Sherlock put it in a presentation this morning, use IT to drive business value innovation.

They want you – require you – to deliver ideas that help the business use technology as a lever to win new business, transform itself, or improve in significant ways.

This is exponentially harder than creating and maintaining world class technology infrastructure, of course. And without a good IT team backing you up, you simply won’t be able to pull it off.

As Joseph Cleveland, CIO of Lockheed Martin told attendees this morning, the future CIO’s role will be to help his or her company find its “silver bullet” — its place where technology can create a competitive advantage. At Lockheed Martin, Cleveland believes that silver bullet is rich collaboration between customers and suppliers and across Lockheed’s four main types of business. 

In fact, he thinks the distinguishing trait of excellent CIOs in the future will be the ability to “diagnose” where the unique opportunities lie.

“It’s easy to hunker down and do the infrastructure and declare victory,” Cleveland said. But it’s the worst move you can make.

Easy. Think about how that would have sounded to you just a few years ago.

No wonder the people questions are keeping you up at night. So going forward, as I look at technologies and how they’re helping and hindering you, I’m going to keep a special eye on technologies and strategies that tie into your people problems. And if you’ve used one in an innovative way, please drop me a line. Maybe you can help some of your peers sleep better at night.