Key question of the day: given the recognized ascendancy of business/IT alignment and business change management as a vital purview of the effective CIO/CTO, should senior technology executives decrease their emphasis on technology, and focus primarily on corporate strategy and change? Should the company just have one role (call it a CTO, perhaps) do all that technical stuff, and move the CIO role into that of predominantly business strategist?
Let me raise my hand for the Nays. That would be the pendulum swinging way too far in the opposite direction. The problem of business/IT alignment won’t be solved by ghetto-izing technology concerns, and/or pretending that an executive is really only part of the senior team if she/he has a mostly strategic orientation and little responsibility for technology. That’s called a backlash, and it’s bound to lead to trouble. Here’s why.
It’s long been pretty close to a received truth that a key success factor for IT is to forge deep alignment with the business. And that’s been an elusive goal. Indeed, one CIO Magazine article from way back in 2004 referred to business/IT alignment as a “Holy Grail”. More recently, a Forrester survey discovered that “only 15 percent of IT leaders declared themselves to be fully aligned with the business.”
I’ve posted myself, early and often, on myriad ways to push effectively for IT/business alignment. So I’m anything but a blind proponent for a technology-centric CIO/CTO. But now let’s talk about the backlash I’m seeing, and use it to reemphasize my point from the last time I wrote directly about “CTO vs. CIO” on this blog: it’s not the title per se that matters, but that a company have a single, key, senior information technology executive who is tasked with shepherding information systems strategy, decisions, and ongoing projects company-wide. Note, however, that as I stated last time, “The important part is to recognize two conflicting truths: technology is all-important in many leading and bleeding-edge companies today; technology itself, however, cannot be the sole, or even the main, focus and purview of the senior technology executive.” Elsewhere, I wrote that “It is absolutely critical that the CIO/CTO be the chief voice at the senior management table, when it comes to educating and advocating the judicious undertaking of “roof projects” when necessary.”
What I’m seeing recently, as I wade through countless magazine articles and books on IT management matters (let alone hundreds of tweets from colleagues on Twitter), is a movement towards deprecating the need for strong technology leadership at an executive level. If past IT executives have been overly focused on technology and not enough on business value, then the answer must be (per this backlash) that the IT executive should move away from focusing on technology, put that in the hands of others, and move instead toward business, innovation, and shepherding corporate change. Specific examples of the backlash:
- “There’s no “T” in CIO”. In Chris Potts’ loosely fictionalized (and in many ways excellent) narrative, “The CIO as a Corporate Strategist,” he has a CEO reflect as follows: “Maybe it’s the constant reference to technology that’s getting in the way of understanding what the CIO role is really all about. After all, CIO doesn’t even have the letter T in it. What if we took technology away from the CIO and focused him uniquely on Business Leadership? What then could the CIO role do for us?” Elsewhere in the same article, Chris writes that “in-house IT management has increasingly become about sourcing and supplier management. Maybe one day, [the CIO] speculated, the company’s sourcing people should do all of that instead.”
- “‘There are no IT projects, only business projects,’ is the frequent imperative of many CIOs and IT leaders.” A number of us had a raging debate on Twitter about this. While it’s certainly true that all projects must have business justification (e.g., revenue enhancement, strategic impact, cost saving, legal imperatives), there will of course always be projects that have little or no direct, short-term impact on the business stakeholders of the company, yet are critical to do. See my recent post on “roof projects”.
The backlashers (to coin a word) are right in their emphasis on business strategy and change, and yet they are wrong: they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. My experience has taught me that technology management cannot be dismissed as purely a lower-level activity, with the senior executives in the company able to take a hands-off approach while they evolve their strategy. In fact, the problem is that too often, technology management has been placed in the hands of people who had only a lower-level approach and perspective. Doing that has resulted in exactly what you’d expect: a lower-level perspective. Hence the stereotype of the unresponsive, uncommunicative, difficult IT organization, often working on matters that aren’t congruent with the business needs of the company. Or, conversely, IT has been “managed” by people who weren’t at all technology-oriented, who have then proved ineffective, open to vendor manipulation, staff disrespect, and a steadily increasing “herding cats” mentality on technology matters.
The answer is not to reject IT as an important purview of a senior-level executive (call that person a CIO or a CTO, as you wish) in a company. The issue is getting a senior executive who will exercise the right balance between technology and business strategy. Downgrading “pure tech” matters to a non-senior executive leads to the same old rut: tech decisions made poorly, with tunnel vision. Instead, the CIO needs to straddle a midpoint on the business/technology spectrum, not swing to one end or the other. You can’t have one person (say, the CIO) responsible for strategy and still another (say, the CTO) responsible for technology. It turns out that you need the combination: a senior executive who is part of the strategic definition for the company, and who can ensure that the day-to-day decisions in information technology will be made accordingly. In other words, companies need to recognize that business projects can fail equally through technology tunnel vision or through too little attention to core technology matters by executives who spend their time elsewhere on matters they deem more “strategic”.
In fact, if there is no (or the wrong kind of) executive in charge of technology, one sees effects such as the following:
- technical and applications architecture tends to grow haphazardly, becoming increasingly inflexible and unwieldy;
- no metrics are gathered, much less used for continuous improvement;
- open season reigns for vendors, who then deal primarily with lower-level buyers who often lack the big picture financially and strategically;
- the “dev guru” phenomenon appears, where the company is dependent on one or two individuals and there’s insufficient cross-training;
- no delivery commitments are made—or commitments are made with no factual basis;
- silos appear in Ops, QA, Dev, PM, often at cross-purposes with each other;
- Multiple points of entry into IT abound for business folks. What gets worked on depends on personality, not corporate exigency;
- little process improvement is considered or exercised;
- “IT sourcing” groups emerge that become sheer order takers for stakeholders who’ve been swayed by a vendor demo.
For further examples, consider the points I made in a recent post, “Canaries in the coal mine: Why your IT department may be in worse shape than you think.” To avoid these and other examples of IT failure, companies need to place at the helm of information technology an active, savvy executive, serving as a peer of the senior executives in the company, and they must look to that individual for leadership, guidance, and day-to-day influence. Should that person have the title of CIO or CTO? That’s not the right question, because it doesn’t matter.