Global CIO: Align IT With Customers, Not Business

CIOs who can't unshackle themselves from the bonds of internally focused thinking and execution won't survive.
Recently uncovered fossil records indicate that the tattered cliché "CIOs must align IT with the business" was first uttered shortly after the discovery of fire. And while that bromide endured for a few thousand years, it no longer applies here in the 21st century because today's new mandate for CIOs must be to interlace IT with their customers.

Consider a situation from the upheaval in financial markets, where Bank of America is taking over Merrill Lynch. Let's say, hypothetically, that Bank of America's CEO tells the CIO to "align our newly combined IT with our newly combined business." Further, let's say that CIO does a crackerjack job on that assignment by early 2010. The problem is that such a mind-set assumes that "the business" will remain unchanged in a hermetically sealed steady state: untouched by further industry churn, unfazed by new business models, and unmoved by massive regulatory changes. Because, in order to begin the project mandated by the CEO, the CIO must first take a snapshot of the thing (the business) with which IT is to be aligned--and that means that on Day 2 of the project, the entire organization will be mapping its future against a model of its past. What's more--and what's even worse--is that this type of thinking, this model, perpetuates the tired and increasingly wrong-headed structure of IT as an inwardly focused, tactically driven, and insularly reactive cost center.

Wait a minute, you say--we can always change the baseline model as the business evolves, right? Well, anything's possible--but what are your change-order policies? What's the financial penalty per change order? How will you ensure that all those changes won't push the project past the vital 15-month time span? No, I'm sorry, but 500 straight days filled with change orders isn't acceptable.

Instead, the best companies have shredded that corrosive Paleolithic view of IT folks as internally focused bit-twiddlers who think customers are internal departments that get paper copies of monthly server-uptime logs. These leaders are eliminating maintenance sinkholes and reapplying those precious dollars to applications and services that aren't just "customer-facing" but are indeed "customer-embracing." This approach connects them intimately with the key drivers of change--their customers!--whose tastes and demands determine how businesses evolve.

Companies and CIOs that can do this will gain significant competitive advantage by knowing immediately not just when but also why customer preferences are shifting; by knowing what types of questions, complaints, and suggestions customers are raising; by establishing a sense of trust via a two-way dialogue predicated on customer preferences; and by giving the entire organization hugely valuable feedback that can be used to refine business processes, communications, product sets, and even high-level strategy.

Those CIOs who can't unshackle themselves from the bonds of internally focused thinking and execution won't be able to survive, let alone thrive, in the years ahead. But those who can lead the interconnected engagement with customers will remake the way business success and business technology are defined for many years to come.

GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

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