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9/4/2008
05:00 PM
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: Are Technology Leaders Focusing Too Much On The Small Stuff?

If you're still preoccupied with aligning IT and business and operating, maintaining, and deploying systems, you're a decade behind the curve.

Are business technology leaders so preoccupied with survival--struggling to keep up with the accelerating pace of change, maneuvering to keep their organizations on track amid an economic downturn--that they're focusing too much on the small, manageable stuff and not enough on unwieldy strategic issues?

Two recent CIO/CXO studies provide some mixed insights. The Society for Information Management last week released portions of its annual CIO survey, most notably a ranking of Top IT Management Concerns, based on responses from 291 senior business technology executives. The old saw of "IT and business alignment" came out as their No. 1 concern, as it is just about every year SIM does its membership survey, followed in the top five by building business skills in IT, IT strategic planning, attracting new IT professionals (No. 1 last year), and making better use of information.

Overall, they're pretty heady priorities, though one hopes that the oft-mentioned "alignment" has moved well past internal IT-business collaboration and into the realm of supplier, partner, and customer business technology integration. And business process reengineering, at No. 18 on the SIM list of IT management concerns, remains too far down, in my view.

A promising finding is the fact that "IT strategic planning" shot up the priority list amid the shaky economy. In previous downturns, companies were all too ready to slash technology spending, notes Jerry Luftman, the lead researcher for the SIM study. Now business and IT organizations are carefully managing through the uncertainty--together. "There's no panic," Luftman says.

Compare the SIM survey results with those from InformationWeek's Tomorrow's CIO survey, conducted in May with 720 senior business technology executives. Asked to pick the main opportunities for CIOs today, their top five responses were improving and/or innovating new business processes, increasing employee productivity via new collaboration tools, facilitating company-wide innovation, cutting business and IT costs, and using customer or business data to drive sales growth. Again, the executive respondents keyed on some very strategic business technology issues. With that question, however, tactical responses weren't a survey option.

When we asked the same execs to choose ways in which their IT organizations contribute to their businesses and the overall success of their companies, their top five responses, unfortunately, were mostly tactical: operate and maintain existing systems, oversee and ensure network function and availability, lead large-scale deployments of technologies and systems, minimize costs by automating processes, and consolidate IT platforms. Further down their list were far more strategic responsibilities, including contributing to company innovation and growth, creating new opportunities for the company, and championing disruptive technologies and processes.

What do all these research points amount to? They're confirmation that business technology leaders are indeed strategic thinkers when they're looking ahead--but in the here and now, they're still not engaged enough with the biggest business issues: globalization, transforming processes, driving revenue, customer intimacy, fostering true innovation.

Maybe we're asking CIOs the wrong questions or predisposing them to select the wrong answers. But it seems that either they don't have their priorities quite straight or their companies' senior executives aren't giving them enough authority to make a business difference. In this day and age, if you're a technology leader and you're still preoccupied with aligning IT and business and operating, maintaining, and deploying systems--as important as those responsibilities are--you're behind the curve.

More to come on this issue in my next column. Meantime, if you think I'm being unfair or simplistic, let me have it at the e-mail address below.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
rpreston@techweb.com

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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