CIOs must say no to generic IT

Fusion 2008 keynote: Companies can use IT to compete by creating differences that matter to their customers and market -- but only if they deliver distinctive, not generic, IT.

MADISON, Wis. -- Aligning information technology with the business has been the mantra of the IT industrial complex since, oh, at least as long as CIOs have been called CIOs. But IT still remains an island unto itself in many workplaces. Why?

That is the raison d'être of the fourth annual Fusion 2008 CEO-CIO Symposium sponsored by Wisconsin Technology Network LLC, where some 250 IT and business executives explore ways to find common ground.

Mark McDonald, an analyst at Gartner Inc. and opening keynote speaker at the two-day event, said CIOs appreciate how integral IT is to the business mission. In Gartner's latest survey of CIO concerns, the items that top the list -- improving business processes, attracting and retaining customers, bringing products to market -- are all "externally focused" on the business. Internal challenges such as reducing IT costs are now a given for CIOs, McDonald noted.

The problem for the continued misalignment, he contends, is that customers, products and business processes are, by definition, dynamic -- they are subject to change -- and IT, by and large, still clings to a mind-set that emphasizes stability and control.

"The idea of IT as a force for stabilizing technology is passé," said McDonald, group vice president, executive programs at the Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy.

Five years ago, when business executives wanted to do something with technology they went "down to the basement with the asbestos" to negotiate with a captive IT department, McDonald said.

New delivery mechanisms like Software as a Service and even platform as a service are changing the way organizations acquire the technology needed for the job -- as well as the speed at which the job gets done.

"The notion that says it is too risky to move forward doesn't play well with the business side anymore," McDonald said. Indeed, captive IT departments will be passé, if they can't adapt.

Businesses thrive by offering differences that matter to their customers and markets, McDonald said. But the IT industry and CIOs tend to run with the herd. McDonald described a Gartner exercise asking CIOs to name their top goals and the five IT strategies for reaching them. Delivering projects that enable the business to grow was a priority for 80% of the CIOs. The head-scratcher? Four of the five IT strategies listed by those CIOs for reaching that goal were the same, whether they were at a large federal agency with 20,000 developers or a liberal arts college with 48 developers.

The challenge for CIOs, McDonald said, is to put business value ahead of technical concerns and come up with distinctive -- not generic -- solutions for the business.

Hard to lead from the middle

The burden of change is not only on the IT side, a point raised by Ed Meachen, associate vice president for the University of Wisconsin System Administration (UWSA), responsible for the university's 15 campuses, some 170,000 students and 32,000 faculty and staff.

The dynamic that McDonald was describing required a CEO who was willing to take a leadership role in making the business case for using IT as a differentiator, not just a support system, Meachen said. "The fulcrum rests with the CEO. It is hard to lead from the middle," he said. "IT cannot drive the business case, but in 90% of the cases that is what happens."

Ray Anderson, CIO at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, agreed that business has to be the driver on those differentiating IT projects that can make the business stand out in its marketplace. Instead, IT is often put in the position of being the negotiator for those projects by top executives who have "allowed that to happen." Most IT organizations he knows are working to make a shift, where IT is positioned as a consultant to the business. "I am working for their priorities," he said.

When asked how much IT can change the business, McDonald said IT can certainly help run a business and help it grow, but in his experience, "the chances that IT can transform the business are small," he said, without CEO leadership.

At CUNA Mutual Group in Madison, Sean Fallon embodies the morphing of IT expert to business differentiator, having recently moved from vice president of application development to product leader of consumer lending. One of his big achievements came from spending time with the company's sales representatives, and realizing the system in which he was asking them to log their appointments and sales actually resulted in a 59-hour week.

"I sat down with the reps and we figured out how to give them back those eight hours of work time" by building a system that cut the number of fields they used from 500 to 118, Fallon said. "We wanted to give them a life."

His advice on how to get the CEO on board? "Figure out the business first, and talk to CEOs in a way they understand," such as how much money they are losing or making, Fallon said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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