Burned by a bad CIO? Get over it!

Just because the last CIO didn't cut it, that doesn't mean your IT department should lag in that person's legacy. Your firm must ask, assess and act.

Is your organization at risk?

What to do? If your company is still in the grip of a failed CIO's legacy, three strategic questions should top your IT agenda:

  1. What's the state of our IT health?

  2. Do we have a valid strategy and, if so, is that strategy being implemented properly?

  3. Do we know how to use technology as a strategic business enabler?

Struggling to answer these questions? Then consider getting a quick, outside pulse check on your IT operation. It shouldn't be expensive. It also will serve as an insurance policy against the awkward CEO conversations (or detours) that begin with the above questions.

Look for a trusted service provider -- one that isn't selling any particular service or product. In other words, look for a provider who will keep your best interests at heart.

That said, here are some basic issues to look at:

IT strategy: Strategy means making sure your IT structure aligns with the true needs of the business. Assuming that you have a viable IT strategy, an interview with the author should tell you what value that strategy holds. Areas to probe include coordination/vetting of the strategy with the various business units or the chief operating officer. You also want to look for strong links to corporate strategy, not to mention a tie-in both to IT initiatives and specific business activities.

Environment: Is the equipment labeled and properly fitted in the racks? Or do you see wires everywhere, plus books, test equipment and old hardware strewn about? Environment says a lot, and you don't have to be an expert to pick up on it.

Infrastructure: A high-level assessment of the infrastructure should focus on platform uniformity for hardware, operating systems, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software, and programming languages. In simple terms, does each IT member or group use its own favored systems or technology? If so, this is not good; it drives up complexity and costs. Conversely, if all units share the same system, then this is likely very good. But only the expert can say for sure.

Policies, standards, documentation and backup: Policies, standards and the like -- all this makes the average IT geek cringe, this digital "artiste," who would rather be programming. But consider this: Doesn't your job security increase if you're the only one who understands a mission-critical system? Hmmm.

Program structure and program management: This is a big problem area for the unhealthy IT organization -- one that creates major personnel inefficiencies, not to mention expensive project overruns. Again, a quick look at ongoing programs will show even the generalist whether or not the department has been operating under adult leadership.

OK, by yourself or with outside help, you do the assessment. What then?

After the assessment: Three options

If the assessment reveals a major problem, your company has three main options:

  1. Hire a CIO. Just because you made a bad hire previously doesn't mean it was a bad idea. So what's the biggest factor in poor CIO hiring decisions? Either the candidate was a pure technologist or, conversely, a pure operations analyst -- in other words, not balanced enough in approach. Ideally, the CIO should understand and communicate the convergence of strategy, business, technology and ROI at the executive level. Realism and humor also help.

  2. Rent-a-CIO. From midmarket to large-cap, the rental approach works well across the spectrum of companies. For large-caps, the rental route allows the board to maintain operations -- or even to "shake the cage," spurring internal interest while buying time to find the right candidate. For midmarket companies, the rental can help educate the board on the true value of the CIO. The main drawbacks to the rental option? Cost and continuity. True, renting a CIO will always cost more than a permanent hire, but then you can get rid of them at a moment's notice. Still, beware: If a permanent CIO is never hired, operational continuity may suffer, especially when the rental dude departs.

  3. Engage expertise. If warranted, bring in an external organization to manage your major technology implementations. Not only is this usually the lowest cost alternative, but it's recommended for the small and midsized organizations that don't depend that much on complex technologies. The key? Make sure your organization obtains some serious knowledge transference during the process.

Michael Brice is a partner at Unisys Corp. He can be reached at michael.brice@unisys.com.

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