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Information systems management isn't the problem; CIO learns he is

Landing his first CIO position by railing against IT's information systems management habits, now seasoned CIO Niel Nickolaisen shares ITSM lessons.

It has been many years since that eventful day when I first became a CIO. I was the vice president of operations for a consumer packaged goods company. In my spare time, I complained loudly about the low quality and inflexibility of our information systems management practices. Each time my team came up with an idea that would reduce cycle times or increase inventory turns, the IT group told me that the home-grown systems could not handle the associated business rule changes without significant rewriting. So, I complained.

Niel NickolaisenNiel Nickolaisen

One day, the president of the company came to my office, pulled up a chair and said, "Niel, I am tired of the way you bad-mouth IT." I replied, "Jon, I will stop complaining as soon as you fix IT."

I then started on my litany of what our information systems management approach did not let us do. Jon let me ramble for a few minutes and then stopped me. "Niel, I am going to do something about IT. From this moment on, you are the new CIO. If you think you can fix IT, it is yours to fix."

In my arrogance, I seized the reins of IT power and immediately floundered. I had no idea what to do. I had no idea what a CIO should do. I had no idea how to manage or lead an IT group. I was failing. Then, on a day I will always remember (it was Nov. 8, the skies were clear, the last vestiges of fall were in the air), I spent the day with a highly successful CIO. She talked me through the processes she had put in place. I spent time with her staff; she took me to her planning meetings. At the end of day, as I thanked her for giving me some clue as to how to do my job, I asked her, "What is the most important lesson you have learned? What has been the key to your success?"

Remember, to your customers, IT is an icon on a display.

She paused for a minute and replied, "Remember, to your customers, IT is an icon on a display."

She then ushered me out of her office and on my way without any explanation of what she had just said. Over the next few days, weeks, and now years, I think I have figured out what she meant. To our customers, we are an icon on a display. In other words, we provide IT products and services. To me, this is the central message of IT Service Management (ITSM): We should align ourselves around the products and services that we provide to our customers. This product-centric view of life creates significant opportunities for us to both align and improve IT.

For me, organizing around not just product families, but also organizing IT around integrated product and service teams, works well. I have three primary product teams -- one owns student-facing applications, another owns staff-facing applications and the last owns IT's applications. In my current situation, this structure has brought us closer to our three customer types (students, staff and ourselves), and broken down some of the historical IT functional silos.

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Product planning, Stage-Gate product development, product launch, and enhancement and replacement all work perfectly for IT products like communications, business applications, ecommerce, mobile, analytics, et cetera. This product management approach to IT also sets the stage for decisions about insourcing and outsourcing (including on-premises / cloud) and setting up IT as a profit center.

Then there is product innovation. What can we do to make sure that our IT products and services are world-class? What do we compare them against? I compare our products against the best products in the world. Cloud providers are really good at things like self-service provisioning. My deployment "service" should match that capability. Who is best at mobile reporting? My application services should strive to become at least that good.

A product-centric view of information systems management has served me well over the years. It has not been easy, particularly inside of IT where we tend to think and act functionally (software engineering as opposed to infrastructure management as compared to QA as compared to service desk). Aligning around services can dissolve these barriers in addition to making our customers much, much happier as they work with integrated, service-centric teams.

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