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IT Futurist: Innovation can save the CIO profession

Thornton May thinks that most CIOs are a little too rusty on their human-to-human skills -- and he should know. The IT futurist and speaker at last summer's CIO Conference is a former CIO himself, and he currently spends much of his time working with, lecturing, interviewing and writing about other CIOs. May, who among other things is currently serving as executive director and dean of the IT Leadership Academy, an IT think tank and studies program at the University of Florida in Jacksonville, believes that the CIO profession is in danger. He says the big problem is that CIOs are largely seen as obstacles to – rather than pioneers of – innovation in the enterprise. Worst of all, he believes it's their own fault. In this interview with, May discusses these growing problems, and ultimately reveals that there is hope for the future.

What are the biggest concerns on the minds of CIOs today?
To take that question another place, ask what is on the mind of people who employ CIOs. And there are two dimensions which many CIOs have troubles dealing with. One dimension is leadership and the other dimension is management. And those are two fundamentally different disciplines. What is the difference between the two?
Management is basically taking existing resources and optimizing their deployment for the realization of known and measurable objectives. Leadership is creating new places to go. Research we've done at the IT Leadership Academy basically shows that on both dimensions CIOs scored very, very poorly. Why do you think they scored so poorly?
Go to any CIO and ask them if they have articulated the services they render to their constituent base. Then ask them if they have service level agreements for those services. Then ask them if they have unit costs for those services that they provide. Then ask them [if] they have benchmarked against the best in the world and see how they figure that out. Basically, only 20 percent can answer that question affirmatively for all four questions. Even the basics of management aren't happening. Does this spell bad news for the drive to better align business with IT?
Alignment has always been part of it. Basically, CIOs and IT shops are basically being exfoliated because they're not doing well on the basics. And then there is this whole leadership thing. CIOs in the IT shop are basically viewed as toxic to innovation versus being in front of and enablers of innovation. Why are CIOs seen as a hindrance and what do they need to do to change that?
First let me qualify my remarks. I'm talking about the general mass population. There are 16% of the CIOs out there who are world class, and kicking serious butt, and generating super normal returns to their shareholders if they're publicly traded, and basically order of magnitude improvements on mission requirement fulfillment. I'm not damning the entire species; I'm just saying that basically 84% of them are a do-over. With that said, what recommendations do you have for the other 84% of CIOs?
One is they have to get out more. I mean, they've created these fortresses. You've got to change that. That is where your alignment disappears. One, they don't even talk to their peers. You have to be physically proximate to the business. The whole idea of being isolated from the business is nuts. Actuaries have more charisma than CIOs do. We've got to human up. Can you give an example of a positive CIO role model?
People like Ken Bohlen at [Textron Inc.] He walked through those four questions I told you about: Figure out your services, get your service level agreements, and drive it into like Six Sigma precision and cost effectiveness. He's done that. He's now got a good handle on his cost. That is the first step, if you will. But that is only a tiny step on the path. He has actually changed his title from Chief Information Officer to Chief Innovation Officer. He now stands on the councils of all the design engineers throughout the Textron global outfit. His value add now is helping the innovation process, because that is the future. Can you think of any other CIO role models?
The folks at General Motors are very, very good with regard to saying, 'First you have to dissect your processes.' You have to ask how this business makes money and then figure out how IT impacts those processes that help us make money. You start with the business. Most people don't have really good process maps. I mean, this is why you got an Enron. They didn't know how money happened in that organization. Do you have any other good news for CIOs?
This is an eminently winnable game. Go to the business, figure out what the business is doing, figure out your role in that type of thing, and get your costing right. These are things well within the realm of human capability to do, and the fact that they aren't being done borders on malfeasance. What about the presidential election? Is a second term for President George W. Bush a good or bad thing for CIOs?
I think it's great for CIOs. The current administration is big into personal responsibility. And [lack of personal responsibility] is what has been holding IT back. Ultimately, people are going to be held accountable for making good things happen. That is going to be empowering. The whole idea of getting something for nothing is over.


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