It takes courageous leadership to communicate true but unwanted information to an organization’s stakeholders, because it won’t be what they would like to hear.
By Frank Petersmark
The life of a CIO is a precarious one at best, but are CIOs contributing to their own insecurity? In some cases the answer is an emphatic yes.
First, the good news.
The U.S. economy is slowly but surely emerging from several years of soft pricing, diminishing profitability and expense containment. Enthusiasm and budgets for innovations, upgrades and efficiencies are on the rise. Large-scale IT initiatives that have sat on the shelf for the past two or three years are being re-examined and readied for activation.
And now the not-so-good news.
While the overall picture may generally bode well for CIOs, these trends increase the uncertainty and put a lot of pressure on CIOs to essentially make up for lost time. CIOs today are mightily tempted to make big promises that they may not be able to keep.
The problem is that the industry’s appetite for new technology has increased, but the fundamentals required to successfully execute and implement enterprise-scale IT initiatives have not decreased, and may have actually increased in difficulty over the past few years.
The Reality of IT Initiatives
For starters, vendor-provided systems have made longed-for functionality and configurability advances over the past several years, but many of these systems pose massive integration challenges. The types of skills required to accomplish these integrations are in short supply in most IT departments, and many of the newer vendors in the space have wisely stayed away from offering integration or even implementation services and instead are focusing on advancing their product’s capabilities. That leaves many companies at the mercy of third-party integrators whose business models don’t necessarily align with the effective and efficient implementation of these systems.
Another reason that implementing pent-up IT initiatives may prove more difficult is a fairly simple one, but nevertheless true: Many companies have not done it in a while. Skilled program management is no different from other skills in one important sense: Practice makes perfect and, by extension, lack of practice is a problem. Many IT divisions have operated in “maintenance mode” during the last few years, and may therefore be out of practice when it comes to the high-pressure stakes of implementing complex software platforms. In truth, many companies had struggled with this before the economic lull, and those struggles have not been magically remedied now that companies are ready to pick up speed.
All of these elements contribute to the current state of anxiety for CIOs. While the temptation is to race full-speed ahead, such an approach could lead to the career-damaging spiral of overpromising and underdelivering.
That’s why it is now more important than ever for CIOs to take a deep breath and focus on one critical element: courageous leadership. What does that mean in the context of a CIO’s job? Simply put, it’s the courage to explain what is and is not possible, how long it will really take, how much it will really cost, and what is really required in terms of resources and commitment.
These things, however, are easy to say and very difficult to do. Let’s consider two hypothetical paths for CIOs and see how they play out. In both scenarios, a CIO realizes that the organization’s core systems are antiquated, that internal and external customers are unhappy with the system’s functionality, and that competitors seem to be moving ahead of them from both a technological and customer-experience perspective.
Scenario No. 1
In the first scenario, the CIO hires a consulting company to perform a business-requirements gap analysis, provide an IT roadmap update that will lead to strategic business objectives and review potential options for modernization.