Adapt or Die

In the beginning there was the mainframe.

So began the story of contemporary computing and the evolution of the chief information officer. The mainframe era was the first significant technical era. It was followed by the distributed era, and then along came the current Web-based era. Each has been accompanied by a generation of CIOs: homo mainframus, homo client/server, and now e-homo. According to Professor David Feeny, vice president of Templeton College, a graduate college in Oxford, England, technology is sometimes in a period of revolution, sometimes in a period of evolution. CIOs must, he argues, also continue to evolve to survive and prosper.

In March, Feeny, who is also the director of the Oxford Institute of Information Management, presented a one-day seminar organised by the Australian Graduate School of Management in Sydney entitled "The CIO (R)evolution". Well attended and received, the seminar provided useful insights into the way the CIO is mutating, and the relationships which the CIO must forge in order to deliver strategic information technology systems which will benefit the business. According to Feeny, there are three forces which affect the role of the CIO: executive attitudes, the applications portfolio, and the dominant suppliers. As each of those forces shifts, so must the CIO response. Over time these shifts lead to a change in the fundamental roles of the CIO.

During the mainframe era the role of the CIO was largely that of operations manager. Executive attitudes revolved around harnessing IT to automate processes and cut costs, while the dominant supplier of the era was IBM. By the time distributed computing had become the norm, senior management viewed IT as either a strategic business asset or as non-core. These dichotomous opinions were difficult for CIOs to negotiate, especially given the wide raft of suppliers which rose to prominence, including Microsoft and Intel; outsourcing specialists such as EDS, CSC and IBM GSA; the still powerful IBM; and applications giants such as Oracle and SAP. During this era the CIO's role expanded to encompass the technology architect, the organisational designer, the informed buyer and, to some extent, the strategic partner of the business. In the Web era, the CIO is also expected to become a business visionary.

Yet Feeny cautions against suddenly letting go of those previous roles in order to assume the mantle of business visionary. "All the evidence that I have is that the learning we have done is crucial to the future and not just relevant to the past. Being the operations manager is the starting point for anything that you do," says Feeny. "There are six roles, and my contention is that they are all still around. They are a cumulative set."

Undoubtedly, the demands placed on the CIO have increased enormously. In the Web-based era Feeny says, "the most immediate impact is that suddenly the business executives are likely to think that this is an important issue. It is almost inescapable that e-business is on the board's agenda, because the sharemarket wants to know what the hell they are doing about it." Over time the applications portfolio changes, as do the dominant suppliers, but most profound for the role of the CIO is this shift in executive attitudes. "The main new role - at least on offer to the CIO, even if it is not accepted - is to be credible as someone who can be one of a core team looking at the future business, which will be enabled by technology," Feeny says.

That credibility, however, must extend throughout the organisation. Feeny maintains that although it is critical to develop a strong relationship with the chief executive officer, that in itself is probably not enough. The CIO needs to have strong and broad organisational support. "What we have deduced is that evolution is not just about the passage of time or moving to a new technology model. It is about securing organisational learning. You need to change the attitude of the CEO and the executives throughout the business. Then, unless you're particularly unlucky, you will get reasonable continuity and progress."

Touching All the Bases

To win over the wider organisation Feeny maintains the CIO has to secure a number of bases. "To get to first base you have to deliver on the promises. To conquer second base you have to be accepted as a strategic partner. Then there is the third one: to be a business visionary you have to be proactive, not just a technology interpreter."

According to Feeny, the CIO who cannot make it to third base, where they are viewed as a real business partner and are cast as a functional head, will find that business partner role usurped by external consultants who will then drive forward the strategic IT vision. The cast-off CIO will then find slim pickings left, essentially having to go back to the role of operation manager.

Practically, Feeny says, making it to third base means getting right the culture of the information systems group. That does not mean simply aspiring to world's best practice, and getting things achieved on time and on budget. It means ensuring that everything is achieved with the business as the prime focus. "One of the guys I admire always takes a walk and stops his junior employees and asks: 'What are you doing?' One young guy, 12 months into his job said: 'I'm working on the new xyz protocol and it's really exciting.' The CIO said: 'That's not why we pay you. We pay you to improve communications between head office and the distributed stores'."

That this inevitably meant working on the xyz protocol was incidental, Feeny says. He advocates that CIOs constantly talk the talk of the business, not the technology department, so as to ingrain the need for the business to be the prime focus of IT staff. "It may sound simplistic, but it's critically important to how people in the IT function relate to the business culture."

For seasoned CIOs the need to talk the talk is probably not news.

ITs the Business

According to Feeny, the average lifespan of a successful CIO is 18 years (that is, once they have achieved that pinnacle of IT, they remain in a similar role for 18 years). One of the benefits of such a lengthy incumbency, he says, is that the CIO has seen a number of changes and trends, and knows that ultimately the business is what is important, not the new technology or hot-shot supplier. "The CIOs I have met who are considered successful are very loyal and are most ambitious for the business. They want to make a significant difference for the business. Their motivation is about moving the business forward," he says.

To help achieve that ambition, Feeny advocates CIOs abandon what might be considered traditional development techniques and adopt what he refers to as the time-boxed model. This properly applied, he claims, could deliver a step change in the wider business attitudes towards the IT function. "It works in the more strategic projects," Feeny says. Traditionally, he says, systems development had involved using a known map to get to a known destination.

For example, you wanted a general ledger system, then it had to have certain functions, use specific standards, be developed in a certain timeframe and for a specified cost. The problem with maps, Feeny says, was that people looked at them, saw they had rocks to climb, and took along ropes; saw there were rivers to cross, and carried boats; saw it would be cold, so packed sweaters. These loaded up the specifications on a conventionally developed information system, which were often inappropriate for the current technological era.

"The right analogy is not a map but a compass. You need to be consCIOus of the goal, but pragmatic about how you get there," Feeny says. He adds that adopting the compass rather than the map, as a metaphorical guide for IT development. This allowed an organisation to force a learning culture in which staff explored what might be feasible, and which would still take them to the stated destination. "You want an adequate system quickly, not a beautiful system slowly," he says, admitting that this represented a "real paradigm shift for many IT departments". The end result of this shift in strategy was that IT developments would be seen as dolphins rather than whales. Projects would be shorter, sharper, and many, rather than the large, whale-like projects of the past.

In practice, adopting the time-boxed model involves creating full-time multidisciplinary teams drawn from IT and the business, then enunciating a goal which is purely focused on the business. For example, one such goal might be "we want to cut the time to fulfil this order form from six days to six hours". Then you give short mandated time scales (Feeny recommends a third of the time you would have expected using traditional techniques) and set minimal architecture constraints, such as "how you do it is up to you as long as it fits with the overall architecture of the business".

It might seem heresy to homo mainframus, but for e-homo this is gospel. And it would be necessary to set significant business goals to make the time-boxed model work, Feeny says. "If you just say you want to make something 10 per cent better, then you make incremental improvements" rather than the great strides which would deliver a real business benefit.

As an example of the time-boxed model of systems development, Feeny provided the development in the late 1990s of the latest LandRover vehicle, the Freelander. Typically, the car industry had taken five years to deliver a new model of car: 60 weeks to commission the plant to build it; up to six weeks - generally - to fulfil a specific customer order; and then about 20 days of inventory on hand to operate successfully.

With the Freelander, chief executive officer Ian Robertson set a new agenda. The new model would be delivered in 30 months, the production line commissioned in 28 weeks, a customer order fulfilled in two weeks, and only 1.5 days of inventory would ever be on hand. It was an enormous shift for the organisation, and could not have been achieved without the underpinning of information systems. But it was achieved.

Writing in the winter 2000 edition of the Sloan Management Review, Feeny and his co-author, Michael Earl (professor of information management at the London Business School), note that Ian Robertson pronounced that there are "no sacred cows in achieving the Freelander project". This encouraged the project team to embrace new technology-enabled processes as the most viable way forward. To meet such goals it is clear that change is inevitable, the old ways will not do, new ideas are welcome, IT is a possible tool."

Robertson is one of a small band of chief executive officers who Feeny characterises as "believers" when it comes to the church of information technology. A growing band, they are nevertheless in the minority compared to other less enlightened chief executives and this can prove a problem for CIOs.

Although Feeny stresses that winning over the CEO in isolation of other business executives is probably insufficient, trying to get anywhere without that support is almost impossible. Certainly an IT department would still be able to install and operate useful information systems - systems which delivered GST compatibility or ran the back office. However, without the committed support of the CEO it would be much harder to deliver truly strategic information systems. "The biggest constraint seems to be the relationship which [CIOs] can achieve [with CEOs] and the robustness with which they can pursue that relationship," Feeny says.

CEOs Who Get IT

In the Sloan Management Review article, Feeny and Earl address the topic, "How to be a CEO for the information age". As part of that, they identify seven types of CEO. "We used a rather religion-oriented metaphor because this is about beliefs," Feeny says. "In the Web age we find a reduced number of atheists," he says, but zealots are on the march, and possibly just as potentially dangerous to the cause of the CIO.

The seven IT creeds of the CEO as defined by Feeny were:

* Hypocrite: espouses the strategic importance of IT but negates that through personal actions; * Waverer: reluctantly accepts the strategic importance of IT but not ready to get involved; * Atheist: convinced IT is of little value and publicly acknowledges this belief; * Zealot: convinced IT is strategically important but believes he or she is the IT authority; * Agnostic: concedes IT may be strategically important but has to be convinced over and over; * Monarch: accepts that IT is strategically important but appoints someone else to run IT and abdicates further responsibility; * Believer: acknowledges that IT is an enabler of strategic advantage and reinforces that through his or her own behaviour.

Feeny says that although most CEOs have now reached a point where they think that they ought to say that IT is important, the way they are saying it and then following through with actions may be inappropriate. The true believer is, of course, the ideal; but for the CIO that points to a very demanding relationship. Ultimately, of course, those demands translate positively for the business, but "they don't give IT an easy ride", Feeny says.

Easy ride or no, believers are what the business needs to make the great leaps forward in the new millennium. So how can the recalcitrant CEOs be reformed?

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