The CIO, as someone who sees across the company, is well positioned to shape corporate strategy. But the CIO is often asked merely to be tactical, and strategy isn't something most CIOs are expected to study in school. Even if a CIO did, the strategy course would probably be misguided, said Cynthia Montgomery, who teaches strategy at Harvard Business School.
Her 2012 book The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs is getting attention, in part because it seems to fly in the face of everything Michael Porter taught businesses about strategy. She says her current book builds on his work but reframes the broader questions of strategic thinking.
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Although she aims her comments at CEOs, any C-level executive can learn about strategy from her comments. The CEO needs some help, as she told strategy+business, because it's hard for the CEO to be a strategist.
"Everybody says that strategy is the CEO's responsibility. But it's just one of many things that the CEO is responsible for," she said in the article. "So strategy becomes an area for experts. The company draws on specialists to help with external analysis, to do a deep dive on competitors, and to look at trends around the world."
She said that inside a business, leaders must know the answer to the questions: "What will this firm be, and why will it matter?"
That sounds like squishy existentialism, especially in a world that believes, a la Michael Porter, that strategy should be driven by economic analysis. She argues that the qualitative question of "What matters?" is actually quite hard-nosed, from a business perspective. It is also quite difficult. Imagine that as a CIO you had to answer, every day, in the face of intense pressure to outsource or to adopt off-the-shelf cloud solutions for pretty much everything you do, the question, "Why should my department be here?"
She told strategy+business that most executives struggle to articulate their company's purpose. Students in her executive courses can make great arguments about the strategies of companies she features in her case studies, but cannot do the same for their own companies. In other words, even top executives cannot make the leap from theory to practice. So she guides them through developing their own strategic plan, and then spends multiple hours with them in strategy critiques and study sessions.
It's obviously hard for any working executive to do this, but Montgomery says that strategy cannot be left to company and department retreats and then forgotten. It must be an ongoing conversation. Montgomery says that a good CEO will engage in these kinds of discussions with senior executives. A CIO can adapt this technique for ongoing conversation with his or her peers, and with IT department leaders, so everyone in the group understands what IT does and why it matters -- especially at a time when businesses like to argue that it doesn't.
The good news for CIOs is that strategy boils down to a few simple questions: what do you do that's distinctive? Why does your business or your department matter? Or, as she put it in Forbes, ask the following four questions:
-- What does your company bring that customers value?
-- Of these things, which are vitally, even uniquely, important to customers?
-- If you closed your doors today, would your customers suffer a real loss?
-- Are you doing today what your company needs to do to matter tomorrow?
CIOs should substitute department for company when talking within IT.
By developing a strong understanding of your department's purpose, you as CIO should also be able to help lead your company in new directions that are good for the business. This is the kind of effective strategic thinking that CEOs crave, and it's also something CIOs are in a good position to do.