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John Soat
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The CIO Role: Beware The Enabler

I'm in a un-PC mood, so I'm thinking of IT and its relationship to business in terms of a dysfunctional family.

I'm in a un-PC mood, so I'm thinking of IT and its relationship to business in terms of a dysfunctional family.Have you been watching the new TV series on AMC called Mad Men? It's about advertising executives on Madison Avenue back in 1960, and it's a hoot -- all unfiltered cigarettes, thin ties, slicked-back hair, cutthroat office politics, and dysfunctional families. And maybe it's that show that has me in a passive/aggressive, role-playing, stereotype-setting mood.

I recently interviewed Dave Aron, who is VP and research director of Gartner Executive Programs. Aron has a new research study called "The Seven Levers of Growth," for which he interviewed 13 organizations, organizations such as LeisureCo and Juniper Networks that have grown substantially over the last few years, about their methods for engendering top-line growth, and how the CIO and the IT function can contribute in those areas.

The seven levers of growth, in order of increasing importance, are: improve operations, innovate products, exploit channels, target customers and markets, acquire companies, connect the ecosystem, and create "blue oceans," the process, based on the bestseller "Blue Ocean Strategy" by W. Chan Kim, of carving out new market spaces that make the competition irrelevant. Aron says CIOs and IT can be involved in those levers of growth in one of two ways: they can enable them, or they can contribute to them. Aron says that CIOs, and by extension their IT organizations, generally assume one of three roles in their corporate cultures: the "in the way" role, the "enabler" role, or the role of directly contributing to the growth of the business. "Enablement is the traditional position of IT," Aron says. But if CIOs want to be successful and have more of an impact in their organizations, they have to move past the role of enabler to something more proactive.

"It's necessary to refocus the culture of IT," he says, so that the CIO is "less of an order-taker and more of a technology venture capitalist." By that Aron means taking on the characteristics of a venture capitalist: challenging the value of projects, suggesting alternatives, and making sure the necessary controls are in place, both inside and outside IT, for the success of projects. "So that IT doesn't deliver a platform nobody can use," he says.

Enabler sounds like a good thing. But in the modern parlance of psychopathology, the enabler is a passive participant in self-destructive behavior. In the stereotype of the dysfunctional American family, it's the enabler who allows the dysfunction to continue.

I'm not saying that making the computers work is dysfunctional behavior. But if the company values growth, it needs ways to innovate and expand and IT is one of the primary ways to accomplish that, then simply striving to enable IT functionality is, at the very least, short-sighted. What I'm saying is, beware the enabler role.

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