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The Brady effect: full steam ahead for ITopia

I’ve become a tad protective of CIOs in my three years covering your daily battles to bring our economy into the information age. When I hear an IT consultant lecture CIOs on aligning with the business or learning to speak the language of the executive suite or proclaim that 50% of CEOs believe IT actually inhibits progress, a not-so-sotto-voce sneers, “Oh yeah, what about the suits in the corner office? When are they going to learn the language of information technology?” I’m the belligerent parent on the sidelines of the school softball game. “Get real, ref! The future of business is information technology!”

So it was fun yesterday to hear Susan Cramm, the former CIO of Taco Bell turned “leadership coach,” tell a ballroomful of CIOs that successful companies of the future — 2015, in her imagined scenario — will not treat IT as an expense to be minimized, but as an asset to be optimized. Tech-savvy business partners will be your allies in aligning IT and the business. For ITopia to be realized, however, the standard operating model of IT has gotta go, Cramm said.

These days, the big, ugly road to ITopia is clogged with business projects that are driven by IT people, the only ones with a license to drive, Cramm said. Your business partners along for the ride spend half their time trying to take over the wheel and the other half trying to bail. In the back seat is a big, hairy, smelly guy who goes by the name of Lights On, hogging space, edging out your business partners.

Some of those business partners left on the side of the road take matters into their own hands, jumping on horses to get where they need to go, invariably breaking the rules of the road and inevitably having to be bailed out by IT. In the shootout that sometimes ensues, it is always your IT guys, not the business renegades, who end up in the pokey, Cramm said. And the CIO? In the doghouse. Blamed for not being able to drive the business partners everywhere they need to go. Nothin but a houndog.

If the standard operating IT model is going to change, CIOs need to get real and realize the job of IT is too big, Cramm said. Ridiculously big. Cramm started in IT as a programmer 30 years ago, and except for four years spent as a CFO at a midmarket company, she has been living and breathing IT ever since.

“Every day that I spent as a CFO was easier than any day I spent as a CIO,” she told her room of CIOs. 

As a CFO, she had fiduciary responsibility for the company – a heavy-duty job, no doubt – but she didn’t have to manage every dollar. Nobody came to complain to her when they didn’t make their numbers. That was their responsibility! The IT job is too big.

“We try to be the sole provider of all the IT solutions. We want to be the lowest-cost provider. We are expected to lead all the change and innovation, manage most of the products, ensure the business strategies are IT-enabled. We write the business cases, write most of the functional requirements and do most of the business analysis,“ Cramm said. “And if that is not enough, we challenge ourselves to know more about our business than our business partners.”

CIOs are missing two critical ingredients she had as CFO: knowledgeable, accountable business partners and the authority to make sure that people follow the rules. CIOs need to figure out how to get these ingredients, starting out by giving their business partners more control.

To drive home the get real part, Cramm told, well, a driving story about her 17-year-old nephew Brady. Actually Brady doesn’t drive. On the one hand, his parents are cool with that. It’s safe. But Brady expects them to drop everything and drive him where he needs to go, and when they don’t — he tends to whine. 

“It’s way past time for Brady to learn how to drive,” said Cramm.

So it is with your business partners. But they can’t learn until you teach them to be savvy IT drivers.

“CIOs have to give up control in order to gain control,” Cramm said, urging the audience to give their business partners the education and tools that will make them partners in aligning IT with the business.

Go team!

To hear Cramm’s address, check back on the blog later in the week for a podcast.

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It seems like common wisdom these days that IT leaders need to understand the language and needs of the business areas they serve. If you just take out the letters "IT" and change "serve" to "interact with", that statement takes on a whole new dynamic. Business-focused people need to speak enough of the IT language to understand what they're asking for (even if they don't understand the guts of how we deliver it). Creating a common vocabulary or at least a common framework for those discussions is the key. It's a concept that's repeated in the bits & bytes world (use XML to allow disparate systems to talk), the technical world (come up with standard forms and terms for your IT people to talk to each other), and the real world (learn English if you want to play in certain markets). Open, transparent partnerships with understanding from all parties are the way we all win...
Susan Cram is right, it is time we CIO, partner with business from every angle, education our business partners, training them on the language of IT and the business benefits of IT and its relevancy at each and every project business plans.
Susan Cram is right . . ."The IT Model needs to change." The first step is the CIO needs to be accessible to the CEO. CIO’s reporting to the CEO's have a greater chance of achieving business alignment. CIO and CEO relationship is critical if IT is to be optimized.
I agree with Susan that CIO should partner with the business. They must participate actively in the Business projects and discussions. The Business has rights to lead the project but the Technology inputs should be taken from IT. IT contributions happen once an IT person is involved in the planning stages of a project.