CIO strategy: 10 qualities of IT greatness

Successful IT groups are resilient, flexible, and highly responsive to organizational business needs. For many CIOs, this goal appears elusive and completely disconnected from the daily grind of servers, users, downtime, and help desks. Despite the difficulty, CIO success depends on connecting the chaotic, often crisis-driven, IT environment to high-level strategic and business priorities that matter to the broader organization.

Linking a tactical IT culture rooted in reaction and response to broader strategic goals is a worthy, if difficult, challenge, which requires understanding the areas of intersection between IT and the business. Despite the obstacles, IT must cross this bridge without disrupting its own operational ability to deliver projects on-time and within budget while still achieving planned scope. To be sure, this balancing act requires careful and delicate choreography!

Paul M. Ingevaldson spent 40 years in IT, most recently as CIO of international retailer, Ace Hardware. His recent column in Computer World caught my attention because it presents ten qualities of IT departments that have successfully bridged the strategic gap.

I spoke with Paul and asked him to explain the list:

To accomplish the goal, you must take the list as a whole; it’s not an à la carte menu and you can’t leave pieces out.

For example, an effective steering committee ensures that IT projects reflect the consensus of C-level executives around business goals and the organization’s automation strategy. Moreover, the organization needs a consistent set of rules around IT priorities, without the CEO randomly deciding how to manage IT. Unless the CIO reports directly to the CEO, and is therefore on equal footing with other officers, it’s very hard to make this work.

Bridging the gap from tactical to strategic requires understanding the organization’s business goals, which should be IT’s basic context, and creating an IT group that’s capable of executing well.

Paul’s list of great IT qualities (which I have edited) addresses both considerations.

1. The CIO reports to the CEO or, at least, the chief operating officer, giving the CIO clout and ensuring IT’s independence.
2. An IT steering committee, composed of C-level executives from the business units, makes allocation decisions based on a defined set of priorities and criteria such as ROI. The committee is necessary to ensure that investment decisions are made in the interests of the entire company and not just an individual department.
3. The organization spends an appropriate percentage of corporate revenue on IT, indicating the company’s level of commitment to IT.
4. A well-managed, highly visible security team is in place, since this is one of the most vulnerable areas of IT.
5. Disaster recovery plans and processes, involving users and a documented recovery plan, are well-established and tested regularly.
6. An ongoing commitment to training keeps IT staffers up to date. Organizations that don’t train IT folks and use lots of consultants are not sufficiently focused on in-house staff.
7. Rigid adherence to an appropriate system development life cycle, that both IT and the user community understand, is a priority. Documenting the selection process offers insight into the professionalism of the IT organization.
8. Well defined technical and managerial career paths let all workers achieve higher pay and status. This is the only way to retain top technical people who don’t want to manage others.
9. A monthly major IT project status report is widely distributed throughout the company.
10. The CIO participates in long-range, organizational strategic planning. If not, it’s clear the business views IT as an implementer and not a strategic enabler.

For many IT departments, realizing every item on this list will take time, focus, and lots of internal selling and convincing. Despite the effort, that goal is in the best interest of all technology stakeholders within an organization: shareholders, senior management, users, and IT itself.

The goal is clear and the bridge available, making the new year a great time to take steps forward!