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The most popular IT advice columns for CIOs from 2016

CIOs wanted practical advice on how to achieve digital transformation. Emerging tech and how to be a better boss also got mind share. Here are our top IT advice columns of 2016.

It's hard to overstate the impact of digitization on our work and personal lives. Digitization has created a new kind of warfare; in 2016, it drove the outcome of a presidential election. And digitization continues to roil the business world order: Success rides on being able to serve customers through digital channels and to use digital technologies to automate and streamline internal operations. So, it is perhaps not surprising that digital transformation and its attendant technologies -- cloud, mobile, analytics and Agile -- figured large in our best-read IT advice columns of 2016.

11. IT shops sabotage themselves when they frame cloud as a cost issue

Enterprise cloud initiatives are getting a lot more attention from business leaders, CEOs and even boards of directors, but are CIOs framing the case for cloud computing correctly? That's the question analyst Mark Tonsetic, IT practice leader at CEB, based in Arlington, Va., raised in his column, "Advice for IT leaders: How to tell the cloud story."

Corporate IT shops often frame the case for cloud computing as a debate about cost: Is it cheaper over the long run to operate in the cloud versus on premises? But by focusing on cost, IT organizations continue to define themselves as a cost-management problem for the business to fix, rather than as an engine for business growth, Tonsetic argued.

CIOs don't just need a cloud strategy; they need to tell a compelling cloud story -- or risk marginalizing IT's role in digital transformation. Tonsetic laid out four key ingredients that go into making a compelling case for cloud in his column, published in August. But be prepared: Playing the leading role in that story will require many corporate IT shops to rethink how they operate.

10. The best mobile security programs find the right balance between risk and control

How do CIOs deliver the best mobile security? Longtime SearchCIO columnist and CTO Niel Nickolaisen suggested they take a cue from the 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow. In his July column, "The best security plans examine risks first, then prescribe," Nickolaisen cautioned CIOs against committing one of the career-killing sins of the consumer IT age: Using command-and-control tactics on people who "long for self-actualization."  He reminded fellow IT leaders that "the IT landscape is littered with CIOs who tried to limit what their internal customers could and could not do with technology."

So, how do CIOs contain the very real threat that mobile devices pose? Nickolaisen suggested a two-pronged approach that begins with identifying and assessing the various risks associated with the enterprise's mobile computing environment. The next step is defining the likelihood of each risk occurring and its effect on the enterprise.

9. The Agile status report is not dead

As more organizations adopt Agile development practices, Agile expert and business management consultant Joseph Flahiff has noticed a worrisome trend: Developers are adopting a "just trust us" attitude, blowing off the project status reports typically made to IT bosses and other project stakeholders. Why is this happening? Managers are partly to blame, Flahiff said in his August column, "Agile organizations still need project status reports."

The information provided in status reports was often used by managers "against their teams to push them harder," he explained. Development teams learned to report that the project was on track -- at least until it failed. The tables are turned. "Agile coaches are now telling their managers to stop asking for project status reports," Flahiff documented. The new attitude not only shows a "fundamental disrespect for the work managers do," he argued, but also puts projects at risk, because they are being developed in a vacuum. He offered a way forward, but it will require bosses to first do something they don't always do: Explain why they need regular updates.

8. The thrill of bargain-basement advanced analytics

Nickolaisen's January column, "How to do an advanced data analytics project on the cheap," struck a chord with SearchCIO readers. (Who doesn't love a bargain?) If cloud has taught CIOs anything, it's that delivering high-value IT services doesn't require spending a fortune. Advanced analytics is no exception, and Nickolaisen offered proof, describing a project he did at the university where he formerly worked.

The project cut to the core of the school's goals: to increase graduation rates. The school had a sophisticated admissions model built by academic experts to help it decide whom to accept. Nickolaisen had the bright idea of analyzing this data against how the matriculated students performed and their graduation rates. The result was a major revamping of the admissions model. He got it done without a slew of data scientists or the massive tools often used in advanced analytics projects -- for $3,500. Read how.

7. The one test you need for your DR/BC plan

Does a disaster recovery/business continuity (DR/BC) plan exist if it isn't tested? Nickolaisen is firmly in the camp that answers in the negative. CIOs must test their DR/BC plans -- in a meaningful way -- or they might as well not have them. His January column, "How to test your DR/BC plan," takes readers through four possible ways to test a DR/BC plan. ("I have learned the hard way that the first three approaches leave a lot to be desired," Nickolaisen said.)

The winning approach requires some serious thinking, because it is done in "logical phases" that align with business needs and timetables. This approach to testing, in turn, requires close coordination with the non-IT side of the organization. The first few times, you conduct a phased test, "there will be chaos, disorder, panic and frustration," Nickolaisen promised. No matter. Bring the popcorn, he advised, and enjoy the show.

6. Enterprise digitization in 2020 will be defined by these six elements

If you're like the majority of business leaders surveyed by Andrew Horne's team at the consultancy CEB, you believe the business needs to speed up its digitization efforts if it is to remain competitive. At companies where the leadership team doesn't yet have a clear and common understanding of what enterprise digitization entails, picking up the pace will be hard to do. Horne, who focuses on IT strategy and performance metrics at CEB, laid out six shifts happening right now that will define digitization in 2020.

The primer gives CIOs a way to talk about the elements of enterprise digitization in a nuanced fashion -- one that will resonate with business leaders. Horne started with the idea that customers want personalized service, but personalization also includes the desire by some customers for a simple, nonintrusive purchasing experience. Read his May column, "Six shifts that define enterprise digitization in 2020," for the other five elements.

5. The role of CIOs in achieving digital readiness

Companies are under tremendous pressure to become digital enterprises -- i.e., businesses that serve customers through digital channels and that are using digital technologies to automate and streamline internal operations. That's a tall order, and one of the biggest roadblocks to fulfilling it, research shows, is figuring out who should lead the charge.

Here's a quick answer from Horne: "Embedding digitization objectives in enterprise and business unit strategies requires broad C-level involvement." But he stressed the need for broad C-suite involvement does not preclude -- or excuse -- CIOs from playing a vital role in these digital transformations. "CIOs should help their companies define and create frameworks to guide digital initiatives and prepare IT teams to provide support," he advised. According to CEB research, leading CIOs achieve these two goals by following three principles. Read Horne's July column, "The pivotal role of CIOs in digital readiness: Three principles," to find out what they are.

4. Being a delegator is hard work

Most of the top executives Flahiff has dealt with over the years believe "with conviction and sincerity that they are being good leaders and delegating." But, as he explained in his July column, "Delegator vs. micromanager: What kind of boss are you?" many, alas, are not. Flahiff noted that a large percentage of self-proclaimed delegators are delegating work, but not the critical decision-making responsibility and authority for that work. "If you are telling your teams the work you have decided needs to get done, you are a micromanager, not a delegator. And, you are holding your organization back," Flahiff wrote.

His advice column includes a test on how you would assign the work for a hypothetical 9-year-old girl's birthday party, as well as a three-part prescription for becoming a delegator "instead of being the dreaded micromanager." Hint: The vision thing is important. So are great communication skills.

3. Plan-build-run is really, most sincerely dead

When the talk turns to enterprise digitization -- as in get going already, or your job is in jeopardy -- do you wish the advice giver would actually explain how to make digital transformation happen?  Or show how other CIOs are coming to grips with it? In his column, "CIO outlook 2017: Five elements of the new IT operating model," CEB's Horne laid out the processes, behaviors and next-generation technologies CIOs will need to pursue in 2017 in order "to transform products, channels and operations"  -- all while providing traditional IT services.

"The old adage about building the ship while sailing has never been more true," Horne wrote. The five-step plan to digitization described here is based on CEB's conversations with hundreds of CIOs from around the world. It starts with the incontrovertible realization that the traditional plan-build-run model IT shop is kaput. "This project model worked best when demand was relatively stable and predictable. But in a world of rapidly changing -- and often business-led -- digital initiatives where requirements are unclear and hard to predefine, this model is on its last legs," Horne wrote.

The must-read column, published in early December and already No. 3 on our list of the year's best-read IT advice columns, addresses the need to adopt new ways of working, upgrade IT talent and come to grips with some of digitization's most significant business implications.

2. In a digital-by-nature society, protecting data has never been more important

In a year of spectacularly devastating data breaches that had serious business, political and global consequences, the second best-read of our IT advice columns, published way back in January, reverberated throughout the year. "A disaster recovery/business continuity plan for the data breach age," by Harvey Koeppel, begins where the longtime SearchCIO columnist and former Citibank CIO, who retired from IT in May, often began his practical advice columns -- with a 10,000-foot view of the state of technology.

Koeppel explained that with the digitization of work and play -- as we become digital by nature -- the value of the technology is becoming less about the application, or process, and more about data. "A disaster recovery/business continuity plan that does not account for our dependence on data puts the enterprise, its employees and customers at risk," Koeppel warned. Never one to merely scold, Koeppel laid out 10 best practices to follow in designing, implementing and improving upon DR/BC plans "for when (not if) disaster strikes next." He also tells a funny disaster recovery story from his past. 

1. Three-dimensional printing and the great beyond

Our best-read IT advice column of 2016 is also from Koeppel, and it reflects an important part of our SearchCIO coverage: emerging technologies CIOs need to know about. In "3D printing technology payoff beyond imagination," Koeppel, a hard-nosed skeptic on all things tech, celebrated the promise of 3D. He offered up a compendium of modern-day wonders already being performed with the help of 3D technology and lucidly laid out why we ain't seen nothing yet.

True to his pragmatist nature, Koeppel augmented his future-world vision with a "12-step CIO program for 3D." Thank you, Harvey, for the advice you've given our CIO readers over the years -- and for giving us the benefit of a rare intellect distinguished by imagination and real-world know-how.

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