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CIO Must Read: "Breakthrough IT"

In his new book, consultant Patrick Gray examines how to take your IT organization from a cost-centric services provider to a valuable business partner. Here's a hint: Do your homework.

In his new book, consultant Patrick Gray examines how to take your IT organization from a cost-centric services provider to a valuable business partner. Here's a hint: Do your homework.Gray is the president and principal of the Prevoyance Group. "It means foresight in French," he says. "And there was a domain name available." His new book is "Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value Through Technology" (John Wiley & Sons; 2007), a detailed outline, including chapter summaries and action items, of how to transition IT from a corporate utility to a strategic asset.

On the book jacket, Mark Lutchen, CIO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, describes the book this way:

As business changes, so, too, does the role of the CIO and the overall IT organization. In "Breakthrough IT," Patrick Gray provides a necessary road map for shifting IT from an operational entity that simply manages technology, to a powerhouse that combines strategy and technology to deliver measurable business results and long-term value.

I talked with Gray to get some insight into how he sees the role of the CIO having to change to accommodate "breakthrough IT," and what CIOs should do to accelerate that change.

The first thing, Gray says, is a mindset makeover. "The CIO has an asset no one else has: Visibility into the whole organization," he says. "The CIO has more of a vision into the organization than anybody else." Unfortunately, CIOs haven't traditionally thought of that enterprise view as something they can leverage.

In fact, the biggest obstacle to CIOs moving into positions of strategic importance is that they're used to being thought of as "operational" types -- and of thinking of themselves that way. "It's a matter of getting out of that operational mode, and of thinking of IT as a [business] tool in and of itself," Gray says.

Another factor that keeps CIOs out of the business strategy circle is that the CIO position isn't thought of as a developmental role. CIOs mostly come up through the technical ranks and that's all they really know, he says. They're not groomed to be C-suite leaders like other CXO positions. If you go to Wharton or Sloan, for instance, and talk with a hundred of their MBA types, only one or two may aspire to be a CIO. "Companies need to pitch the CIO as a valuable C-level position," he says.

So what can CIOs -- and those who aspire to be CIOs -- do to make themselves more strategic and less operational? "The biggest thing: Get out of technology for a while," he says. "Get some experience where IT is not your primary focus."

As for transitioning your IT organization from a cost-centric services provider to a business partner, the first step is getting the services piece right. And that means getting IT to a high service level, and then getting it out of the CIO's purvey. "That's something a middle manager should handle," he says. It's important to get the CIO out of the mode of constantly fighting fires. That way, the CIO can have these "Aha! moments," where he or she might see, for example, that the company is going into a new market and that the ERP system that was just put in won't accommodate that market very well, Gray says.

Another important point: CIOs need to do their homework about the companies they work for. CIOs aren't usually experts on the company's products or markets, Gray says, and they need to be in order to realize, and be able to explain, the true value of IT across the enterprise. "It's a big shift in focus," he says. The CIO needs to go "from being a pure technologist to being a student of the business."

And CIOs need to insert themselves into areas not traditionally thought of as involving IT. For example: product development. "I think there's a space in product development for IT," he says.

The main thing is for CIOs to get out of the mindset of being simply technologists and services providers, and into the mindset of being business executives and strategists, Gray says: "Then the CIO can make the argument [to upper management], 'Hey, you're spending all this money on IT. What more can we do?' "

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