CIOs Should Be Their Company’s First Customers

By Peter High

Gary Marshall, CIO of SunGard Availability Services, believes the CIOs of technology companies should be their company’s first customers. These CIOs may seem to be in the unenviable position of being surrounded by people who think they can do the CIO’s job better than he or she can. However, Marshall makes the point that the savvy CIO is well positioned to shape the products and services of their company by using them, offering critical and timely feedback, and then by becoming an advocate with the company’s customers, especially if those customers are also CIOs. Marshall spoke with CIO Insight contributor Peter High about why every company today should act like a technology company, IT’s value proposition, the CIO’s evolving role and more.

CIO Insight: You’ve long been a believer that the CIO of a tech-centric company should be the company’s first customer. Why?

Gary Marshall: From the CIO’s perspective, being the first customer and a partner with the internal group means that you’ll be their best and worst customer. Best, because you are committed to the product’s success and won’t walk away. Worst, because you know the product well and will test it to its limit and try to break it. Therefore, CIOs come at it from the perspective of the customer advocate; this is useful feedback before putting the product in front of actual customers.

As a customer advocate, you can bring a sense of production to a product and service. Things in development are usually functionally tested, but not scale or stress tested. CIOs and IT members spend many hours per day with the infrastructure and product portfolio in one way or another and, therefore, are uniquely poised to really test upcoming products and services.

CIO Insight: To become an end customer-centric CIO requires a cultural shift for many IT organizations. How do you go about enacting such a change?

Marshall: A CIO’s and IT’s value proposition is to improve business. Traditionally, IT sees tech solutions as its core capability, but I think that should be its second value proposition. The first should be an understanding the business, then comes mapping technology to the business needs, and the third part of the value proposition is to improve business performance.

In other words, IT is not a back office function, but a front office driver. The notion of IT as an enabler is dated. Look at the self-service commerce models that have come about in the recent years from iTunes to other app stores; IT was not an enabler, but a driver of this change.

CIO Insight: You also believe that every company should act like a technology company. Why?

Marshall: No other component of a business, from operations to finance, has the ability, when properly focused and executed, to change the dynamics and performance of an organization like IT can. For example, the instant reach of a Website in the 1990s allowed people to go from local to global. Today’s Amazons and eBays of the world can service a virtually unlimited number of customers. It is a consumerized environment, and businesses need to be dynamic, technically capable, and infrastructurally safe to foster such innovation. If you are not meeting these business profiles and dynamics, you run a significant risk of becoming obsolete.

CIO Insight: You have led a number of non-tech companies. How have you enacted the change of being an end customer-centric CIO?

Marshall: It is about the ability to speak the business language and focus on business improvement. I’ve also tried to add a layer of proven techniques and formats together like lean Six Sigma to grease the skids. The process and the technology are symbiotically connected; if you can leverage the language and make the jargon go away, you’ll have a profound conversation about business improvement.

CIO Insight: What are your thoughts on the evolution of the CIO’s role?

Marshall: Evolution can go one of two ways: One, the CIO who morphs and takes advantage of changes in the environment and becomes the “CIO-plus.” Such broad generalist CIOs will eventually become CEOs. The alternative is that CIOs don’t adapt. This will lead to problems—shadow IT will creep in, and it will be harder to control SaaS applications leading to gaping holes in security and data quality. Basically, these are about keeping the lights on in a business, and that’s why CIOs get fired. They don’t get fired for moving the company forward. So, CIOs need to be both cautious and open.

About the Author

Peter High is the president of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT. High’s new book Implementing World Class IT Strategy (Wiley Press) will be published in September. He will provide a 30-minute lecture via videoconference to any company that purchases 50 or more copies of the book.

To read his previous CIO Insight article, “Being a Lean IT Group—And Continuously Improving,” click here.

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