Why selling is more important than ever for CIOs

What CIO could not identify at least one initiative that failed because the stated problem turned out not to be the real problem or because unforeseen political dynamics stalled a decision at the last moment?Brian Prentice, Gartner

CIOs are now operating in an environment of both partnership and outright competition with IT vendors. Thriving in this environment requires CIOs to "sell" their unique value proposition within their own organisations.

The enterprise market once dominated the product design decisions of almost all technology vendors. Sitting in a position of incredible power over these vendors was the CIO — the individual who oversaw sourcing decisions, facilitated implementations and dictated the pace of technology upgrades.

However, the past decade has seen the growing autonomy of line of business (LOB) managers and individual employees to make their own technology decisions.

Cloud computing has played a big part in this, calling into question the long-term value of a central asset managed by IT departments — the enterprise data centre. The pricing, licensing and acquisition model of cloud computing also facilitates direct engagement by LOB managers, with minimal, if any, involvement of enterprise IT staff.

Consumerisation has also spread autonomous IT decision making to most employees. This is resulting in a need for bring-your-own-device and bring-your-own-application policies. The level of technology knowledge outside the IT department has increased dramatically. Non-IT workers simply don't need IT departments to explain things as they once did.

Although CIOs may hope to slow the pace of change, the harsh reality is that there is no returning to the days when all technology decisions flowed through the IT department.

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As LOB managers and other individual employees make more IT decisions autonomously, CIOs will have to employ the same sales techniques as technology vendors to ensure the continued relevance of the IT department.Brian Prentice, Gartner

Vendors have increasing influence

One of the primary impacts of this new reality is that vendors have increasing influence on an enterprise’s digital direction. This influence has always been an issue that CIOs have had to deal with, but the variety and the volume of vendors now staking a claim to the "digital narrative" of enterprises are unprecedented.

It's important that CIOs recognise the unique selling propositions of vendors, beyond simple build vs. buy considerations. Vendors often have a broad perspective on their clients' industries and areas of operation, as they supply solutions to many other organisations within those industries and areas. Unlike most IT departments, this gives them opportunities to talk to, and form relationships with, non-IT staff — managers and other individual employees.

Vendors, however, also have significant limitations. They’re unlikely to have a holistic view of any clients' organisations because they’ve only limited access to them, which means their relationships are also limited.

Without a central point of coordination, which IT departments could provide, client organisations will find that multiplying vendor relationships will result in a disjointed mass of tactical technological initiatives that work against the emergence of a broad, coherent digital business strategy.

Democratisation of IT decision making

CIOs face a challenge. The democratisation of IT decision making within enterprises, and the growing influence of vendors, means that CIOs no longer "win by default." Instead, they must convince other members of their organisation of their value.

The more IT decision making is democratised, the more important a unique value proposition becomes for the IT department — that is, its ability to offer a comprehensive perspective on the digital future of the entire organisation.

This leads to a requirement that may feel uncomfortable. CIOs need to prepare their department to compete for attention by selling its unique value proposition.

Employ same sales techniques as vendors

As LOB managers and other individual employees make more IT decisions autonomously, CIOs will have to employ the same sales techniques as technology vendors to ensure the continued relevance of the IT department.

Over 20 years ago, enterprise IT vendors made a substantial change to their customer engagement strategies to remain viable. Their approach to selling shifted primarily from an order fulfilment activity towards structured, consultative sales processes, often under the banner of "solution selling". In pursuing this approach with a view to long-term value selling, there is, however, an important principle for CIOs to observe: their intent should be not to manipulate, but to optimise outcomes for all stakeholders.

Brian Prentice is a research vice president with Gartner's CIO Advisory team, leading research on digital humanism. He focuses on helping CIOs transform the enterprise IT organisation into a design centre, along with the strategic leadership required to navigate the competitive digital business landscape.

The CIO should use solution-selling techniques to relate the organisation's IT needs to the unique value proposition of the IT department.

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