CDO: The Chief Déjà Vu Officer

by Peter Kretzman

Whac-a-mole. It’s my favorite of all metaphors, at least when it comes to applicability to IT. For those who don’t know the background: Whac-a-mole  is a commonly seen arcade game, where plastic moles pop up at random through holes in the game panel. The job of the player, of course, is to pound them down again with a mallet, accumulating points with each kinetic, mind-clearing, vigorous whack. And, of course, the game keeps speeding up. The moles never stop coming.

Any readers who don’t instantly get the clear analogy to IT are probably reading the wrong blog.

A career spent in IT feels like a constant bout of Whac-a-mole. But here, again, is one key recurring “mole” that I find especially irritating: the proliferation, against all logic, of articles and tweets about the demise of IT, the death of the CIO, and how technology is now so easy, so omnipresent, that experts are no longer required.

I wrote about this ever-repeated meme a year ago in a post titled “IT consumerization, the cloud, and the alleged death of the CIO”.  I railed against the meme, pointing out that “this frequent linking of cloud and IT consumerization to the looming demise of the CIO and IT is not just misguided, but actually gets it completely backwards. In fact, I argue that IT consumerization and the cloud will actually elevate the importance of IT within a company, as both a service and a strategic focus.

But IT moribundity is a meme that somehow refuses to, uh, die.

Why? Everyone is a technology guru now, it seems, eager to dismiss the need for real experts now that we all have iPads. And a great way to garner attention is to publish posts or deliver talks with extraordinarily baitful titles like Peter Hinssen’s recent article, “IT Departments have become completely useless”,  or Matt Hooper’s TFT12 presentation, “Bye Bye IT, We’ll Miss You”.

The line above about the iPads sounds like a dramatic exaggeration, but it’s not. Hinssen dismisses IT departments as now useless, in part for this reason: “since everyone and their dog started carrying around iPads, the IT department really lost their advantage on the ‘frontier of technology’.”  Hinssen is an industry veteran and should understand that IT’s purview is far broader than what can be rendered obsolete just by the advent of the latest gadget, yet his whole post wallows in such overstated stereotypes.

Moreover, his post exhibits what amounts to the same kind of underlying scorn for IT people (“dead weight”; “hopelessly out of date”, etc.) that I’ve called out elsewhere, such as when one industry pundit wrote of the need to “turn the tables on those bastards in IT.”  Hinssen delights in telling us that the successful Chief Digital Officer comes “from anywhere but IT, actually,” in an echo of Gartner analyst Mark McDonald’s similarly dismissive claim several years ago that “the real determinant [of a “rich” CIO] is that many of [the “rich” CIOs] come straight out of business.”

To the rescue: the Chief Digital Officer

For Hinssen and many others, their disregard for IT now comes coupled with an easy solution, though: the new trend of Chief Digital Officer appointments, often cited with much accompanying glee as compelling indication of the “death of the CIO”. But in truth, this new position and title is (in many if not most cases) just the latest warmed-over and foolhardy attempt to separate strategy from execution as some kind of magic way to get more done without having to deal with all that killjoy fastidiousness that IT always brings to the party.

Déjà vu, anyone? Those of us who remember the advent of PCs in a corporate environment have heard many of these same arguments before. It’s my personal computer now; I won’t need to be dependent on “those guys” over in IT. Many departmental folks in the 80s insisted on jury-rigging PC-based systems so that they could have independence from the perceived tyranny of IT. I mean, how hard could building a few systems really be, right? Sooner or later, of course, those systems often proved brittle, ill-constructed, unable to be integrated, lacking vital security functions, subject to single point of failure, etc.

Innovate away, but don’t abandon fundamentals

People also justify their dismissal of the importance of execution and experience by pointing out that many IT systems have become mere commodities, no longer deserving of a top executive’s leadership. Yet, real competitive differentiation in business actually comes from the non-commodity systems and from the innovative applications of technology that you and your staff can dream up (and implement) successfully.

So yes, you innovate: you latch onto new ways to get that much-needed competitive differentiation. But you’d better not abandon the lessons of the past just because they seem boring or unpleasant or way too detail-oriented, compared to the heady macho whirl of strategy. Unfortunately, business systems tend to be complicated, especially the new and innovative ones that we so desperately want. What often fall by the wayside, by people giddy that everyone now has iPads, are the execution fundamentals needed to address that complexity. We will always need some adults in the room when designing and implementing complex systems, and by “adult”, I mean people who know, by dint of experience, when and how to take a mature, sober, suitably rigorous approach.

A real-world case in point

Let’s talk about one recent, highly visible, textbook example that illustrates keenly the still-vital importance of solid IT leadership to mission-critical endeavors (This example shows, most notably, innovation coupled with fundamental execution). In the presidential election of 2012, a major differentiating factor, by all reports, was the IT team put together by the Obama campaign. Aside from sheer strength of numbers (for example, Obama’s data team had 50 people; Romney’s only four), the degree of basic IT rigor exercised by the two candidates’ teams was significantly different, and telling.

For example, Obama’s team is reported as having run countless “what if” scenarios to accommodate multiple application failure scenarios.  Romney’s team, in contrast, gearing up to launch a much vaunted “Orca” application designed to help get their candidate’s voters to the polls, apparently brushed off questions related to stress testing, security, etc.

On Election Day, the Romney campaign’s Orca system infamously crashed and burned, because of a “failure to follow basic best practices for IT projects.” Not so with the Obama campaign’s systems. “We knew what to do,” explained the Obama team lead, no matter what the scenario was. “We had a runbook that said if this happens, you do this, this, and this. They did not do that with Orca.”

Contrast that kind of rigorous, blocking-and-tackling approach to the attitude of a marketing guy I worked with a while back, who dismissed the need to stress-test one complex function of a new custom application by shrugging, “well, we tried out that function three times already, and it works; it’s not like it’s going to just stop working.” It never does on his iPad, no doubt. How many freshly minted Chief Digital Officers out of various corners of the business, never themselves having grappled wtih IT-related tradeoffs, are likely to cut corners in exactly that kind of nonchalant way?

Let’s not mince words: it’s reckless and irresponsible to push out strategic initiatives without equally focusing on rigorous execution and implementation. That’s why it’s rankling to see such recklessness joined (and enabled), inexplicably, by a number of industry pundits hopping on the baitful bandwagon and declaring that IT is no longer necessary. Rather, I believe that a critical role of the seasoned IT professional is to help the business balance innovation with the need for well-honed, pitfall-cognizant execution. To be, in short, that adult in the room.

Really: how much déjà vu can we take?

It’s a mistake to consider strategy and execution as a divisible, either/or proposition. They’re inseparable, intertwined, co-dependent. It generally works really badly when the operational side of IT functions independently from strategy concerns, and equally badly when the strategy side is out there dreaming stuff up without either accountability or often even much involvement in actually making it work over time. Separating the roles into two different individuals at an executive level apparently sounds to a lot of folks like a great idea, but it actually creates a fertile breeding ground for left-hand/right-hand disconnects.

So for companies or CEOs that have grown weary of IT being, well, messy, anointing a Chief Digital Officer may sound like a great “all the benefit! None of the pain!” kind of answer. But if we take a careful look at history, the odds are great that the high-aimed strategies designed and implemented by the inexperienced executive will founder, sooner or later, under inadequate planning and poor execution. Just as Orca did.

It shouldn’t need constant restating, in other words: even the best of strategies usually means nothing without well-planned, methodical, rigorous execution. And deep experience actually matters in execution, especially as the stakes get ever higher and the game increasingly more complex.

So there you have it. I hate repeating myself on these matters, but hey… the moles just keep on coming.  WHACK.

Lagniappe:

 

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

jfbauer April 24, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Honestly, as I slipped into my re-tweet of this post’s link, it is hard not to think of an old man yelling “get off my lawn” from his porch at the neighborhood kids as one reaches the middle of the article. But Peter speaks a solid truth: all this IT punditry speak of CIOs and IT being on the decline brings in interest and readership, but doesn’t reflect the reality. In the Midwestern city I live in, the ability to recruit IT talent is the most challenged it has been in 20+ years. The need for highly skilled and experience IT professionals puts the local IT unemployment rate at near zero percent. Yes, local companies are “optimizing” the IT workforce, but the people that are being let go don’t have the dynamic, forward thinking, multidimensional IT knowledge to provide value in today’s complex business focused IT world. “People” IT managers that managed people to the process without any innovation or direct link to value are finding it challenging be relevant.

Don’t fall into the easy trap of thinking this article represents an “old school” view of IT. Consider who is in the best position to effectively display a show-back/charge-back to the business of IT services including the true cost, over time, of leveraging a “cloud” provider that has to integrate with legacy systems, security and audit frameworks and, come contract re-negotiation time, be kept in check when it comes to cost creep for services when no plausible alternative is on the table to balance proposed rate increases.

Don’t count the classic CIO role out too easily.

Mark Brewer May 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Well stated Peter. If anything, the leadership around information technology is becoming more critical than ever and smart leadership of those functions and investments has never been needed more than now.

There is much opportunity still to be had in business, analytics, collaboration, networking and all the underlying technology.

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