CIOs in the Era of Doing More with Less

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 08-05-2009

CIOs in the Era of Doing More with Less

A year ago, no one really knew exactly how down the downturn would get. CIOs and their executive peers rightly prepared for the worst, and in almost every case, they got what they expected.

Now, several months into the recession, many IT leaders tell CIO Insight that they believe the worst has passed. But that doesn't mean things have gotten any easier.

In the annals of business technology management, 2009 will surely go down as the year of "doing more with less."

When times are good, the buzz phrase rings with efficiency and productivity--things any business leader wants. It's part of the whole "continuous improvement" mind-set.

But in times like these, it takes on a very literal meaning. Think more pressure, responsibility and demands, with less staff and fewer dollars, not to mention less tolerance for anything that doesn't deliver quick wins for the business.

For CIOs, "doing more with less" could be an opportunity as well as a challenge.

When the inevitable upturn comes, business leaders will put CIOs' performances in tough times under the microscope. Those who did the right things--even with less--could see upward mobility a little further down the road. Those who didn't may be relegated to the ranks of utility/cost center managers.

Most importantly for IT leaders today, doing the right things means focusing on the long-term view--the strategic components of your plan and that of the overall business, not the bits and bytes of whatever hot technology is dominating the IT buzz.

"It's not an opportunity that we're going to Linux or we're going to Gmail--it's an opportunity in the sense that you can be clear to your business partners that you absolutely understand the situation the company is in, you have a good appreciation for what really is important right now, and you can demonstrate that everything you're able to do is lined up 100 percent behind those critical activities," says Peter Whatnell, CIO of Sunoco and president of the Society for Information Management. "Essentially, you can convince them to say, 'Hey, he's one of us.'"

Focusing on Strategy

Focusing on Strategy

Whatnell makes an important distinction for his peers. Sure, plenty of buzzworthy technologies and tools--social media, open source, software as a service and others--can bring the cost savings CIOs need. But the opportunity for IT leaders is more strategic than tactical, more business than technology.

Business executives never seem to stop complaining that their CIOs talk too much tech and not enough business. And if CIOs can't step up and meet those demands, it's not likely that the discussion will change in the coming years.

Not surprisingly, this degree of pressure is new to most CIOs. CIO Insight's 2009 CIO Role study found that IT leaders are lasting longer than ever in their current posts. But only a miniscule number of them were in leadership roles during the last recession.

Perhaps more revealing, though--at least in these times--is that only half of respondents reported having previously ran an organization in crisis. On a brighter note, more than three-fourths said they served in a liaison role between IT and the business.

In a time where IT continues to permeate all ends of a business in new and more substantive ways, CIOs need to take ownership of their role in the executive suite, says Charlie Moss, founder of his eponymous strategic consulting firm. "This is an opportunity for the CIO to step forward, be proactive, and say, 'Alright, information touches every part of an organization,'" he says. "Even if they're just hosting the discussion, they can say, 'How can we help sales close the deal, or help engineering build the killer app?'"

Yes, it's easier said than done. With all the pressures bearing down on CIOs, it's hard to know where to go. That's why Informatica CIO Tony Young stresses that CIOs must be mindful of the expectations of the business--and manage them accordingly.

That meshes with Whatnell's belief that "personal courage," an attribute often lost on IT pros, is so essential today. "There's a saying that one of the marks of a leader is the ability to speak truth to power. We in IT tend to have a service-oriented mind-set--we're always looking to fill someone's request," he says. "That's still great, but right now you have to find a way to say, 'No, we can't do that.' You have to get verbally smacked around the head for 10 minutes or two days or two months, but that's your job."

Tech Smarts Still Matter

Tech Smarts Still Matter

Still, at its core, "doing more with less" could come down to employing the right IT tactics.

That doesn't mean CIOs need to drill down on the technical details of particular technologies; instead, they need to make the right decisions on what IT capabilities or improvements to pursue--or ignore.

Instead of swinging a lofty ax, some CIOs have found success focusing on smaller technology revamps that add up to big savings.

For example, Cora Carmody, CIO of Jacobs Engineering, has seen huge cost savings in transforming something few think about: printing. By forcing offices to print double-sided, Carmody and her team helped save Jacobs several millions of dollars.

Jim Milde, an executive vice president with the consulting firm Keane and a former CIO with Sony Electronics and Pepsi Bottling, sees customers doing things such as consolidating more of their infrastructure to cut costs, as well as optimizing their sourcing contracts, application maintenance and hardware.

Those are all solid targets for helping the business. But the possibilities could be endless, and weeding through those possibilities presents a challenge.

Milde boils it down to two steps. "CIOs need to look at how their teams can develop applications more effectively; then, how they can optimize those investments," Milde says. "We're continuing to see more opportunities in finding ways to be more efficient."

At the same time, though, Milde doesn't see any "killer" multiyear technology projects that will transform the business. Those have been slowed to a halt, he says, though tactical improvements in areas including business intelligence and data warehousing are delivering results in many companies.

When all is said and done, blending a strategic business focus with the right IT decisions could be what separates the CIO wheat from the chaff. Put those skills together, says Vincent Cirel, CIO of Norwegian Cruise Line, and you'll become a true partner: "A CIO has to become the internal, go-to expert consultant for every functional head in the organization to help them execute, innovate and enable strategy more efficiently with the right technology."

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