by Chris Potts

Mind The Trap: How Not to Handle the Economic Downturn?

Jun 25, 20093 mins
IT Leadership

CIOs have a basic choice between being primarily an operational or corporate strategist

The economic downturn highlights the basic choice each CIO has to make:  to visibly prefer being either an operational or corporate strategist.

CIOs that want to be in the inner circle of corporate strategy are facing a big trap, and an even bigger opportunity.  The trap is to continue to visibly excel at operational strategy, focused on achieving spending efficiencies with no loss of value.  The opportunity is to develop your reputation as a corporate strategist, able to use the economic pressures to drive the organisation to positively exploit IT-fuelled changes in consumer behavior.

Operational strategist, or corporate strategist?  Your call. 

It’s a common misconception that primary role of the CIO is to run the IT department, services and budget.  In truth, the CIO is in a C-level post because she is expected to lead the organisation in achieving a corporate strategy of real significance.  Like most C-level executives she may have important operational responsibilities, but they are not her primary role.

The gap between the misconception and truth about the CIO role explains why many CIOs feel under-valued by their executive colleagues, and not always taken seriously as a fellow corporate strategist.  At risk of stating the obvious, to be valued as a corporate strategist you have to be leading a corporate strategy, not just a departmental one.

The economic downturn is a major test for each CIO, exposing whether – at heart – for all her aspiration to be taken seriously in corporate strategy she is really an operational strategist after all.  Is she on ‘home ground’ talking about IT spending, budgets, services and sourcing?  Or, while obviously competent at handling all those things, is in her element when the conversation turns to how the organisation’s consumers are behaving and whether stakeholders are seeing maximum value from every dollar the company invests (whether in IT or not)?  And if the conversation doesn’t turn to those things, she will deftly turn it there anyway?

Underlying this choice is a real inflection point in the IT market, which the economic situation has partially obscured.  We know that people are becoming ever-more adept at using technology to create value for themselves, the companies they buy things from and the organisations they work for.  Consumers – not technologists – are increasingly the focus and drivers of corporate strategies for IT.  Their patterns of behavior are changing, which in turn means changing patterns of behavior inside organisations so as to positively exploit these developments to the benefit of everyone involved.  

One definition of strategy is ‘a pattern of behavior’ – we do indeed perceive someone’s deep-down strategy from how they behave (rather than what they write or say).

So, as a CIO faced with both an economic downturn and a technology-fuelled change in consumer behaviour, what kind of strategist are your executive colleagues observing you to be – operational, or corporate?