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9/11/2008
05:45 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: What IT Pro Has Time To Think About The Business?

Well, only the most valuable ones. Strategic thinking is everyone's business, even if your organization's culture and hierarchy are holding you back.

As we celebrate this week our 20th annual InformationWeek 500 ranking of business technology innovators, it's fitting that we discuss in more detail the vital subject of last week's column: the role of senior IT management in driving the most pressing business opportunities of the day. Those priorities were defined last week as globalization, transforming processes, boosting revenue, improving customer intimacy, and, most broadly, fostering innovation. Add developing IT leaders to that heady mix.

I encourage you to read more about the accomplishments of the top InformationWeek 500 companies. But the business world is a complex, bureaucratic place, so let's concede that no company--not even InformationWeek 500 No. 1 National Semiconductor--is a model of perfection. Judging from discussions with various CIOs and the feedback received on last week's column, I see one lingering yet overarching business technology challenge: the imperative for organizations to develop individuals and create teams that are business-focused agents of change rather than passive recipients of requests for help. It's almost as big an IT challenge today as it was 20 years ago.

One CTO who's near retirement observes that the top IT decision-maker, perhaps more than any other executive, touches all facets of a company: sales, marketing, customer service, financial, HR, product development. Yet this CTO says he needs to be careful at his midsize company that he's not perceived as stepping on other executives' toes, including the CEO's. While he's on the senior management team and he reports to the CEO, he's not invited to financial and marketing meetings unless new applications to support those areas are needed. The implicit message: Know your place. "It is very frustrating when you know the business and technology and could be a sound contributor if more involved," he says.

An online commenter on last week's column thinks we're "expecting too much from IT and too little from mainline executives." Companies, he says, "have been getting CIOs to think more about the entire organization, but we have not tried to get business executives to understand that they can innovate also. They do not need to solely rely on IT to create business process improvements. I have seen business line executives paralyzed because they do not think they can innovate without IT telling them how."

Another executive, having run IT organizations and served as a controller of public companies, says the authority of a CIO or CTO to drive business change is often dictated by the size of the company, its power structure, where the CIO or CTO sits within that structure, and other variables.

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An IT director based in Europe says CIOs are sucked into the tactical over the strategic out of necessity, as they deal with a "legacy of mergers and acquisitions, rapid growth, business change, bad IT decisions (often by non-IT areas of the business), and myriad other events that create the spaghetti of complex IT environments." And all under tightening budgets. "CIOs who absolve themselves of the sustainment side to focus on the strategic ... fail as quickly as those who get drawn into the sustainment," he says.

Then there's the unabashed old-school view. An IT exec at an Indian service provider insists that most CIOs must remain in "operations mode"--reacting to networks that are too slow, system upgrades that are falling behind, and other user-prompted "escalations." All that globalization, customer intimacy, and other strategy stuff is nice, but who has time? "No business head allows IT to dictate the terms in these areas, and correctly so," the exec says.

Having recently spent a week in India meeting with local CIOs, I can tell you that this view is the exception there, but it persists, to some degree, everywhere. It's dangerous. Who has time to think and act as a business-focused agent of change? The invaluable IT pros--the successful CIOs of today and the rising CIOs of tomorrow. Make the time.

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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