Keeping IT Real

While my current job title is technically (no pun intended) Chief Technology Officer, a good portion of what I do falls within the job description of a typical Chief Information Officer. As such, I have peers in both the CTO and CIO worlds. The language spoken by my CTO friends is usually laced with techno-buzzwords and acronyms, whereas the lingo of my CIO friends tends to be less technical and more process, metrics, and governance oriented. These men and women are incredibly talented in their respective positions, yet it is surprising how often I find both camps missing the mark on what IT is really all about.

Simply stated, IT is about business outcomes. A CIO/CTO is not finished when the technology is installed – he or she is finished only after the expected business outcomes are delivered. When you begin to look at IT in this light, it becomes apparent there is no such thing as an “IT project”, but rather only business initiatives focused on a particular outcome to improve business performance. Framed this way, waxing eloquent about how great new technology XYZ is, or bragging about system up-time is obviously quite out of place when the CIO is meeting with the executive management team. No one cares about how fabulous the plumbing is – they only care about how business performance is being improved.

If you are willing to go with me this far, then I would lay out the following strategy to make IT successful. This strategy is not completely original to me, but it’s a proven one that I’ve tuned slightly over the years and is currently the model that the CIO side of my brain operates under.

  • Avoid Stinkin’ Thinkin’. There are certain “classic” ideas about IT that seem right, but really hamper its ability to be effective. Ideas like “we have to align IT with the business” or “the business is IT’s customer” come to mind first. These sorts of notions imply that IT is somehow not really a part of the business, but just a necessary evil whose cost needs to controlled and minimized. To move the business forward, IT must be viewed as an integral part of the business and the mission. Doing this successfully requires IT to be focused on business outcomes, rather than inwardly focused on itself.
  • Show that IT provides value in terms the business understands. While it’s true that what can’t be measured can’t be improved, measurements that aren’t meaningful to decision makers aren’t helpful either. So instead of reporting that the database servers were up 99% last month, report it in terms of the business processes that depend on them. It’s much more meaningful to say “the Order Entry system was available 99% last month” (or put another way, it was down only 7 minutes at 3 AM). IT management dashboards should be focused on business process performance, not IT infrastructure performance.
  • Show how IT can improve business performance. First, help senior management understand their needs and relate the appropriate technology to them in language they understand. This requires a lot of listening and good communications skills, but you must have clarity before going any further. Help them prioritize the results into various initiatives, and then execute those initiatives on time and on budget. Last but not least, circle back to ensure the expected benefits are realized.

Back in 2009 I wrote a short post about the purpose of infrastructure, and what I said then still holds true from the point of view of those involved in the daily care and feeding of IT. As IT leaders, however, we must take a higher view – real IT delivers business outcomes, not just up time.