by Martha Heller

A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

Jan 29, 20135 mins
CareersCIOIT Jobs

What metaphors do you use to describe IT?

CIOs have always loved metaphors—those wonderful spaces where two parties with different backgrounds can get closer to a shared understanding of something complex and abstract.

These metaphors are even more important today, when the role of IT covers everything from deploying and supporting business systems to developing customer-facing, revenue-producing products.  How will CIOs communicate IT’s evolving mission? What descriptive tools can CIOs use to educate their business peers on technology investment strategies?

In today’s blog, I offer a wonderful metaphor described to me by Werner Boeing, CIO of Roche Diagnostic, and which I’ve included in my book, The CIO Paradox.  Please give Werner’s “traffic lanes” metaphor a quick read, and let me know of a metaphor you have used successfully in your own organization. 

Either post your metaphor as a post to this blog (feel free to include an image!) or shoot me a note at

IT as a Crossroads

When Werner Boeing began his role as head of IT for Roche Diagnostics in 2010, the mantra of the IT organization was globalization. “In the absence of real business cases, globalization was their charge,” says Boeing. “But globalization should never be a strategy. It is a structure in support of something else.”

So Boeing needed to replace globalization as a strategy with a new model for what IT was all about, something that covered operations, business process change, and the newest goal of the IT organization: innovation.

“How does one organization ensure secure and standardized operations in a regulated environment, allow the business to work more effectively, and create space for people to experiment all at the same time?”

Boeing and a photographer he hired found a photo of a crossroads in Spain that had one lane populated by huge trucks, one lane with taxis, and one lane with motorcycles. “The lanes represent the three different modes of IT operations within one global organization,” says Boeing. The trucks represent accepted, foundational, and unchanging truths about the business that apply at a global level and are typically delivered through bigger programs. “Certain things are set in stone throughout the entire company,” says Boeing. “What is our material master? What is a customer? What is a vendor?


These are global concepts. Don’t waste our time questioning them.”

The taxi lane represents projects that are delivering business processes that are not standardized on a global level and which might be treated differently in different regions and business units. “Take customer relationship management,” says Boeing. “In one country, we might use a basic sales force automation tool, because of the level of maturity of that market, and in another, we might build a sophisticated and highly integrated solution for the entire region, because its markets are more mature or more complex.” The taxi lane represents standardization, but it has more flexibility than the truck lane. “With the taxis, we are not coming in with a global hammer. It is all about the right timing and sequencing.”

The motorcycle lane is all about innovation through pilots and experiments. “If we want more taxis, we need to create a meaningful space for safe experiments,” says Boeing. “Let’s not govern everything to death. If you have a good idea, try it out in the right lane with the right effort.” The ideal flow, over time, moves from motorcycle to taxi to truck. “The more processes we can move from motorbikes to taxis to trucks, the more we are bringing innovation right into the core of our business,” says Boeing.


“When I joined the company, we had a traffic jam. We were global when it came to the technology platform, but we hadn’t thought through how to manage our processes on a global basis, and we were not innovating enough,” says Boeing. Using the crossroads metaphor, Boeing is able to illustrate the course for an organization, strategy, and road map that will allow IT to reduce costs and drive innovation at the same time.

For example, Boeing and his executive colleagues have taken the concept of “commercial excellence” out of the truck lane— where commercial excellence was led at a global level by a global governance body— and put it into the taxi lane, “because market conditions and how excellence is defined are different from region to region,” he says.

Using the crossroads metaphor, Boeing and his colleagues have also been able to introduce speedy motorcycles like ad hoc services for business partner collaboration via SaaS. And they have cleared out a traffic jam in the taxi lane through a global prioritization program that moved some global business functions over to the truck lane.

“IT resources are limited, so we can only absorb so many new projects at a given time,” says Boeing. “The crossroads metaphor illustrates that IT projects are all about managing dynamic traffic patterns where we can keep operations running and create short-term space for innovation.”

Werner’s crossroads metaphor works for him and his executive peers, but it may not work for you.  What metaphors have you used to describe the role of IT to your colleagues? 

Until then,