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IT culture's norms in need of adjustment

Cloud technology accentuates some norms of IT culture that need to change. The command-and-control approach is one of them.

CIOs need to start revamping the IT culture's norms, according to Tim Crawford, CIO at All Covered Inc., an IT services company in Redwood City, Calif. Unless the thinking among the IT ranks changes, the role of the CIO and the IT department both could be minimized to that of support staff, versus strategic partner. Crawford, who joined All Covered in September, said he thinks that cloud computing is one factor forcing an attitude adjustment in IT culture, and that holding on to a "command and control" mentality will be a factor determining which CIOs are left behind. The 20-year IT industry veteran -- he held IT executive positions at Stanford University, Knight-Ridder (since acquired by The McClatchy Co.), Philips Electronics NV and National Semiconductor Corp. -- spoke with, expanding on how both the role of the CIO and accepted practices within the IT culture need to shift.

What is the IT culture norm, and why does it need to change?
Crawford: If you look at the value that IT has provided to most organizations, it's been minimal compared to what it could be. All you have to do is ask the business, "How valuable is your IT organization?" You're going to get a pretty wide response, from "Well, they're great," to "God, I really don't want to work with them; they're a pain. I think I can do things better myself." The reason for that is that many IT organizations haven't focused on those aspects that can provide the most value directly to the business, and leverage third parties for offerings that are not as strategic.

What areas is IT holding onto that you believe are not strategic to the business?
Crawford: Most IT organizations believe that their data center is strategic. The reality is, for the vast majority of organizations, it is not. We're all trying to build centers of excellence around managing a data center, and we have no business doing it. I'm not saying that a data center is not important or critical. I'm saying it's not part of our core business.

Another example is email systems. It's a utility, so let's leverage folks who are able to operate and understand that environment better than what I can do internally.

The cultural norm within IT is, "We've always had a data center, so we will always own a data center." We need to shift and rethink that. That's an assumption that we need to question.

So, it's really about changing people's assumptions?
Crawford: Yes, and not just people within IT who are fearful of losing their jobs. I'm shocked by the number of CIOs who are fearful of even considering leveraging a third party for their data center or email platform. It floors me that we are still in that command-and-control mentality.

So, we need to change the profession, and a way to start doing that is to look at the IT portfolio and determine which aspects are strategic -- meaning unique to our business, so we should build a center of excellence around it because it's a differentiator between us and our competition -- and which aspects are not strategic and therefore we should leverage third parties. If we don't do this, the business will continue to evolve such that the IT profession will be minimized; and I'm exaggerating a bit here, but it could be minimized to just a support organization with no strategic value.

Why do you think cloud computing will challenge the IT culture when so many other methodologies and technologies that have come and gone had been predicted to do the same?
Crawford: The cloud presents a situation in our profession that we've never had to deal with in the past. The people we serve internally can now go sign up for services without engaging the IT organization. They no longer need to leverage the IT organization to get the work done. Some will argue, "Well, wasn't that true back in the ASP [application service provider] days?" Technically yes, but back then, even IT was struggling to figure out how to leverage ASPs. Cloud presents a much lower hurdle for that transition to happen. IT really has to figure out, how do we embrace the cloud and provide value beyond what we've been doing?

IT has to evolve to where it truly is a strategic business organization, not a technology organization.

The cloud presents a situation in our profession that we've never had to deal with in the past. Tim Crawford

Tim Crawford, CIO, All Covered Inc.

How does IT begin to transform itself from a technology organization to a business organization?
Crawford: Today we talk about IT in an "us and them" relationship. We've done this to ourselves in the past 30 years. We've turned to the business and said, "Look, you don't understand this technology thing; we'll take care of it for you." We did that with the right intentions, trying to shield them from the complexity of this technology beast that was growing up underneath us. Now we've had to put in these concepts like business-IT alignment and an overlay organization called business analysts to help with that alignment.

My argument is, stop thinking of IT as a technology organization, and start thinking of it as another business organization, just like marketing, product development or engineering. When you do that, you eliminate the need to a large degree for the concept of alignment. You're already a business organization.

How can the CIO help bring about this transformation?
Crawford: You really have to be able to work in business terms. You don't have the marketing head coming to the executive table talking about business cards: "Let's talk about changing the font or the card stock." Instead, they're talking about the message and how the message is going to turn into greater sales and greater adoption of the products and services. [CIOs] need to have a conversation with the head of sales and marketing to say, "Look, I know marketing's focus is getting the message out. I know sales is the one out there trying to pitch the message. Wouldn't it be great if, as soon as you had a change in message, you could get that immediately into sales' hands? And as sales is getting feedback on what's resonating and not resonating on the message, that can get right back into marketing? Would that be useful?"

There might be technology that's enabling it, but nowhere in the conversation was technology mentioned.

What's your advice to CIOs who want to engage with the business more?
Crawford: This is where relationships pay off. You've got to have good, solid relationships with your peers outside of IT, as well as with your executive team. If you have those, and start demonstrating that you can execute on being able to change that thinking, you will earn greater respect over time. It's not going to happen overnight because remember, we're talking about changing culture, and culture takes time; but it will start to evolve.

I think this is where younger CIOs may have an advantage over older CIOs, not from an age perspective, but in terms of the culture they've grown up with. A younger CIO is going to be looking for ways to do something different from their predecessors. They will be looking for ways to put their name on something and create a legacy. The stalwarts who are still in this command-and-control mentality are the folks who have the most to lose.

The command-and-control mentality is dead.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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