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Defining the Terms

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 04-01-2008 Print

Defining the Terms

Before determining the value of tactical and strategic work, it's important to establish clear-cut definitions for these terms. Let's start with strategy, which involves planning for the broad scope of business activity and finding ways to spur growth.

"A strategic view includes the linkages along the entire supply chain, and understanding the consumer, the value you bring to the consumer and how value is contributed by a supplier," says Stephen Pickett, former CIO of transportation services company Penske and a past president of the Society for Information Management (SIM). "It's end to end and means using your knowledge of technology to improve all those things. The strategic CIO is going to set up the enabling forces for his or her people to be productive in those environments, and will create the measurements and metrics that allow individuals to be rewarded on those bases."

Tactics are means of executing on the projects that support all those activities. "A tactical view involves making sure all the engines that make the business work are functioning efficiently and effectively," Pickett says. "This is the operational part of the job, the springboard for clichés such as 'putting out fires' and 'keeping the lights on in the data center.'"

Forrester's Cullen prefers to use the terms change agent and general manager instead of strategic and tactical. A change agent, he says, "is a businessperson who works with the business to use technology to achieve business goals." This style of work does not preclude a focus on running IT well, but it does play a predominant role in the CIO's job. On the other hand, CIOs who spend most or all of their time keeping the machines humming fall into the GM category.

"Good CIOs try to make their organizations focus outward, not inward," Cullen says. "Making your own shop run well, and keeping its costs down and its goals met--those things are necessary, but not sufficient."

In the real world, however, these definitions and expectations begin to change with circumstances. The best use of a CIO's time can change within the same company at different points in its history.

"Pretty much every IT organization goes through cycles," says Diamond's Curran. "There's a strategy phase that generates the need for change, and then the phase of transformation and then the operating phase."

Each phase of the job requires different skills--and perhaps even different people--to lead the way. Curran says that's one reason why CIOs turn over relatively quickly, with an average tenure of about three years. "It's not that these people are terrible at what they do or that they're misunderstood," he says. "It's that different CIOs are good for different phases of the job."

A strategic type who knows how to engage the board with a vision for the future may not be a great project manager or operations person, for example. "If there's a seven- or 10-year cycle of planning, executing and then running big projects within a company, you could be looking at more than one person in the CIO job over the course of that cycle," Curran adds.

For many CIOs, though, the mix of strategy and support is not the stuff of cycles and career changes. It's just part of the job, in ways that make simple divisions hard to draw and even harder to hold within fixed parameters.

That's the opinion of Mike Jones, CIO of Children's Hospital and Health System, a Milwaukee-area organization that includes clinics and social services offices across a wide region. "I don't know that I'm strategic or operational, a change agent or a general manager," Jones says. "I'm probably in-between. You have to do both, and you never have enough time."

Jones attends a weekly staff meeting with the CEO, and he establishes priorities and budgets based on business needs instead of from an operational IT standpoint. "If our businesses aren't involved with a project, we're not involved," he says.

Yet, when Children's does something like its recent expansion into the health care insurance business, his focus is on the nuts and bolts. "We have to provide support and have a plan of action for operations," Jones explains.


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