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Leadership coach says IT should delegate more to business units

Restructuring IT to take on more productive endeavors means giving business units a bigger stake, says a former Taco Bell CIO.

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- The constant barrage of IT projects is holding CIOs and their staffs back from an IT utopia, or "ITopia," and dooming them to an endless backlog of busy work.

That was the message from Susan Cramm, former CIO of Taco Bell and the keynote speaker at last week's CIO Decisions Conference.

"The issue has to do with the fact that the IT job is too big," Cramm said. "The current model doesn't work."

Her proposed solution: A distributed IT model. A world where IT is about policy and management. A world where business units are responsible for their own systems and CIOs become overseers, not glorified fix-it guys.

Cramm, now a leadership coach and founder of Valuedance in San Clemente, Calif., looked back on her IT career as a long, futile struggle to manage and control technology across the business. The result was too much work, too much responsibility and no time for innovation, she said.

She likened project management to a crowded highway where CIOs are left trying to drive every last car to its destination.

"We feel like we've had no choice but to do it all," she said. "If we continue to drive all the cars, we're never going to get to ITopia."

Cramm argued that CIOs should give up some control to business unit managers. By writing policies, watching over procedures and holding business units accountable, they can lessen the IT workload and enable "self-sufficiency" for IT to take on more productive endeavors.

Of course, that means an entire restructuring of how to run not only IT, but other business units as well. It requires a pitch to the bosses, one that Cramm suggested word for word.

"We need to have the courage to ask the question 'Why has IT sucked for 30 years?'" Cramm said. "It's amazingly provocative to ask a question that nobody expects you to ask. We do not have to defend the current operating model. We hate it too.

"We hate the fact that the majority of our resources are focused on the day to day," she added.

Cramm said CIOs can pull off such a striking rededication of IT by working to gain both knowledgeable partners inside the business and the authority to set policy and make sure it is followed.

Those thoughts echoed throughout the conference -- attended exclusively by midmarket CIOs and IT leaders -- as time and time again presenters and attendees discussed the importance of building relationships inside their businesses. IT, it was made clear, cannot be an island, especially in a company with only a few hundred employees.

Rick Lauer, vice president and CIO of the Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), said he has found relationship building invaluable at his 130-employee company.

"We're doing a lot of process improvement, so that's helped us get in good with the business folks," said Lauer, who is based in St. Louis. "We've found a lot of value in finding one person in each department who understands IT."

We need to have the courage to ask 'Why has IT sucked for
30 years?'

Susan Cramm
leadership coachValuedance

Lauer said he has set up a technology committee at LCEF to act as liaisons between IT and the business units. The upshot, which he recognized in Cramm's argument, is that his staff can focus more on projects that contribute to the business.

"I think it's really trying to get IT staff to be sure we're adding value, or we're going to become obsolete with things like Software as a Service coming down the pike," Lauer said.

Cramm said that sort of strategy -- redistributing the grunt work and focusing on projects that can actually transform the business as a whole -- can mean only good things for the perception of CIOs and IT departments. By involving other departments, IT takes on a "responsive" role rather than assuming a reactive pose to put out a never-ending string of fires.

She pointed to Microsoft Excel and business intelligence applications as two examples where industry innovations have resulted in both less work for IT and more productive work for the rest of the business. She said looking for these types of solutions can help upend and rebuild the work CIOs do, ultimately clearing the lanes for progress.

"In the future," she said, "IT's job is no longer to do all of IT, but to make sure IT is done well."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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