by Abbie Lundberg

IT Operational Excellence Is Table Stakes (Or, Get Out of the Server Room and Into the Market!)

Nov 30, 20073 mins
IT Leadership

For a long time, it’s really slayed me when people talk about IT operational excellence being “table stakes.” It always sounded so dismissive. I think of that little white chip you throw in on every hand of poker. It’s a nothing. Anyone can come up with it.

This usually comes up in the course of a conversation about strategic IT and the importance of CIOs getting involved in business strategy and innovation. Getting IT to run smoothly? Table stakes. Keeping the systems available and secure? Table stakes. Installing, configuring and integrating new systems? Table stakes.

“Hey,” I’ve wanted to say, “IT excellence isn’t easy, you know – don’t minimize it!”

But after enough conversations with some pretty intelligent (and successful) CIOs who themselves use the term, I started coming around. OK, maybe it is table stakes – but in a really high-roller game. Information technology is complex, and getting it right is both hard and really important. So what table stakes means is that the game of business competition is being played using IT (emphasis on “using”), and the business best able to effectively wield it wins. Operational excellence is important but by no means sufficient. (Bernard Golden wrote about about this a few months ago, and Galen Gruman talked about table stakes in reference to a focus on infrastructure versus applications when he wrote “the IT infrastructure [is] now just table stakes—part of the CIO job—and why business needs CIOs who are both business- and process-oriented.)

But there is a not-insignificant number of CIOs who won’t even go this far. Instead they protest, “But operational excellence is what we do!”

A year ago, I believed that at companies whose IT was not yet mature or whose industry was not yet very technology- or information-driven, that was enough. What such companies needed in a CIO was a smart person just to make the IT work.

I no longer believe that.

As important as operational excellence is, if that’s all a CIO contributes, their company won’t compete effectively, and they’ll be responsible.

The critical and unique role of a CIO is to marry knowledge of technology’s capabilities with insight into business possibilities. If all they have is the technology, they may run a well-oiled machine (or the IT utility some are fond of talking about), but they won’t be a real CIO.