CIOs must extend their influence beyond IT

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At the time of this convergence, most IT managers and CIOs were busy enough already with high--profile application work. But these days the chance to extend one's empire would be a welcome boost to any CIO, and the option for expansion is being presented as IT converges with power management, air conditioning and general building control.

Many enterprises waste hundreds of thousands of pounds heating buildings when they're largely unoccupied and air conditioning is applied to empty space. Now that IT gives you so much more granularity over measuring human presence and fine-tuning the supply of heat, companies may save a fortune by managing their buildings better. This is a project ideally suited to the CIO, should they wish to manage it, because they have the IT knowhow, the ability to use management tools and necessary project management skills.

According to Schneider Electric, companies overspend on power by up to 40 per cent. They could decrease power bills, not to mention their global footprint, by metering the use of the building more effectively and only heating, lighting or air conditioning those parts of the building that are actually in use. To an IT expert, this is not rocket science. Sensors in each room can detect human presence, and management agents can automate the turning on, and turning off, of power as needed.

"Companies want to save power to lower their carbon footprint. They'll be even keener if and when American and EU legislation compels them to lower power consumption. And meanwhile, you can please the finance director by immediately lowering the cost of operations," says Hemmerdinger. "This is the easy stuff. It's a risk-free way to impress the board and save the company money."

This is certainly low-hanging fruit, but one veteran of the business has some words of warning: that fruit could turn out to be poisonous, says Mike Seery, former CIO at the Economist Group, and now MD of his own consultancy, Seery Associates.

"If you're going to branch out, make sure you branch out into something greater than what you're doing now," Seery advises. The danger is that you could be perceived as specialising in something no-one's interested in. Power supplies, no matter how much their vendors might sugar-coat them, are not the stuff of high-powered, boardroom-level strategy debates. Power costs are spreadsheet items and are rarely the subject of  as the jargonista call it -‘blue sky thinking'.

That's the problem with being down to earth and hands-on: your lack of pretension can hold you back, argues Seery.
"It depends who you are, of course, but if a CIO wants to take on more responsibility, they don't want to get dragged into utility jobs," he says. "A CIO should regard themselves as too high-profile to get involved in building control."

Unless, of course, you can present yourself as the mastermind, several layers of management higher up, who oversees these cost savings. But that allows someone else to take the credit.

"The way to move up the chain [of command] is to take responsibility for identifying return on investment," says Seery.

That doesn't just mean on your own projects - otherwise that will inevitably be calculated by someone else who could be someone in finance in the worst-case scenario. You need to get yourself into a position where you are measuring the return on investment on other people's projects.

There's a rule of thumb for assessing whether a project is high-concept or not. Take an area of the business, and ask yourself: do people complain about it? If not, consider it worth getting involved in.

"When you work in an office, people complain about the building, the lifts, the heat, the lights, the desks and the computers," says Seery. Those are the areas you want to avoid, as you will spend all day fielding queries. As a rule, something is only worth branching out into if nobody, apart from the board, has heard of it.

Measure for measure

Everyone talks about improving business processes. But there's been surprisingly little work done on quantifying them, argues Seery.

Measuring business processes is a growing area. The great thing about the commoditisation of IT is that processors are cheap and IT can be deployed far more easily to measure and quantify all kinds of supply chains and production processes.

"The CIO has an increasingly important role in company investment," says Seery, "With their IT skill set, they know how to measure and how to manage investment projects. There are a lot of unofficial system processes that don't show up on the radar of management systems yet."

For example, in a large hospital, there are official and unofficial factors that determine how long a patient spends on a waiting list, and how well a doctor's department is judged to be performing. A patient waiting for an operation, for example, has to wait at least four weeks before the form they filled in is put onto a computer. Only when it's on the computer does it officially hit the radar of the system that measures waiting times. The purpose of this is to keep the official waiting times to a minimum. This exemplifies how many organisations have an official, recorded system and an unofficial bottleneck that nobody talks about.

Mark Leonard, CIO at telecoms giant Colt (recently profiled by CIO UK), sympathises with CIOs in companies where IT does not drive the business. "Colt is driven by IT as it's a service we sell. There are many ways that IT proves its value across the business," he says.

But CIOs should think twice before treading on other people's toes, or at least being seen to do so, he contends.

"Don't put IT projects on hold; IT is an investment for the future of customer self service, sales force automation, virtualisation and so forth. We don't need to hijack new projects as we are getting involved in more and more areas of the business."

Bryan Doerr, chief technical officer at service provider Savvis, says there's some baggage that is possibly weighing down the CIO.

"Generally, across industry, the issues are the same. It's the infrastructure of the business that needs re-engineering," he says.
Supply chain and workflow snags could still benefit from analysis, and, ironically, the availability of IT as a utility could liberate the CIO.

Grid and cloud computing, he argues, offer affordable capacity that can be used for high-level analysis. "There's still an element of guesswork involved in measuring business processes," says Doerr, who says IT can be used to eliminate it.

"You can create better algorithms and better understanding of how things get done in an organisation."

But if you want to solve the business problems of various departments, he argues, you need to free some time up. Which might mean liberating yourself from, say, the legacy of the datacentre. And possibly all that meaningless corporate jargon.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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