Leadership

From a CIO: Can I do what's being asked of me?

Understanding the business is a challenge for a lot of CIOs? Are we up for it? Am I up for it? Sprawling infrastructure is partially to blame as IT works to reign it all in and focus on "information" as opposed to "technology".

Ok, so I totally stole Toni Bower's post heading from the other day, but her thoughts on CIO skill set as well as the response by avgoustonisc were timely as they've been on my mind lately.  Toni brings up a ton of excellent points that I wanted to build on and respond to from my own experience.

I'm the CIO for Westminster College and I have a staff of eight, myself included.  We're a small place, as you can tell.  We support about 950 students and another 200 or so faculty and staff.  I'm Westminster College's first CIO; the person previously in charge of IT was the Director of Computer Services.  When she left, the executive team made a conscious decision to hire someone with a different view of IT; someone from the trenches but that would work closely with the rest of the executive team to make the best use of technology wherever it made sense.

To say that my team and I have a lot to do would be the understatement of the century, but I doubt that I'll get much sympathy!  IT departments everywhere are stretched these days in all kinds of ways.

Toni asks a lot of very good questions in her post, culminating in the big question: "Will CIOs be able to pull this feat off?" I think we can.  There are a truckload of dependencies, but I think we (and I) can do what's being asked of us with a little creativity and a whole lot of work.

I'll use myself and my department as an example.  Warning: I may meander a bit in my thoughts.

The IT department at Westminster College is going through a transformation of sorts; as I'm putting in my annual business plan, we're shifting our focus to the "information" side of "information technology."  That's where I think the the real value lies for IT departments.  If you look back enough years, this is where it all began, too.  MIS--Management Information Systems--was the predecessor moniker for today's IT organization.  Everything else--the network, servers, printers--was added to support the core need for the business to be able to react as quickly as possible to information.  Somewhere along the line, though, IT itself began to grow and grow and grow--still supporting the data needs of the organziation, but becoming a mini-entity unto itself.  As this sprawl continued, ways were needed to reign it in, thus the rise of SANs, virtualization, Terminal Services, and the whole host of other tools used to tame IT.  Why did this sprawl happen in the first place?  I'm sure that there a variety of reasons, but it's likely that continuing demands on IT play a part in this situation.

Today, with business moving faster than ever and global competition becoming more fierce, there's less time to try new things and it's time to consolidate and regroup.  I'm not sure if this is what people mean by "IT/business alignment" but CIOs are being asked to make quick recommendations based on current markets, not to implement a new email system--without a good business reason.  Without information about markets and a knowledge of the marketplace, CIOs can't fulfill these responsibilities.

You might be wondering where I'm going with this (I'm wondering a bit myself!).  For the past 18 months, since I got to Westminster, we've been focused on infrastructure; we've deployed a wireless network across the campus, replaced the aging campus network, jettisoned a number of old servers, undertaken a major virtualization project designed to reduce dollars spent on replacement, implemented a SAN for service availability through Vmotion, and are at the beginning stages of replacing our PBX.  These are all infrastructure projects that I feel are critical to our success.  Without that solid communication architecture, it doesn't matter what else we do; if services fail because the foundation is crumbling, we will not be able to achieve our goals.  I'm trying to plow through the infrastructure stuff so my department and I can get to the meat: information.

At the same time we undertake projects like these, we're making sure our efforts are sustainable.  I've told the executive team that the worst thing they can do for me is give me a one-time influx of cash.  I'd much rather have a smaller amount permanently added to my annual operating budget.  One-time injections are great in the short-term, but at some point, every piece of technology needs to be replaced.  By adding a smaller amount to the annual budget, I can add technology in a sustainable way.

Cool projects?  Most definitely!  Necessary?  Yes.  Maybe I'm really lucky, but I've gotten almost no pushback on anything I've done since arriving at Westminster College.  The CFO initially asked some questions about what I was doing but since I wasn't asking for additional funding and demonstrated that I have a plan, resistance has been nonexistant.  If I ever stop showing results, I expect the friction level to increase.

Toni talks about IT being viewed as a cost center staffed with techno geeks that want new toys.  Is my department still viewed as a cost center staffed in this way?  To a point, yes.  I don't think that will change overnight.  That said, there has been progress for me. As I indicated, I get very little pushback on technical initiatives--but I also articulate up front the value.  Further, I was recently charged with leading our effort to enhance our campus-wide business processes.  If I was viewed as nothing more than the local egghead without any knowledge related to the business of higher ed, I don't think this would have happened.  I'm fortunate that, although viewed somewhat as a cost center, I don't work with an executive team that want to cheap out on IT.  In fact, in comparing ourselves with colleges similar to us, we are generous when it comes to the amount spent on IT.

The job of keeping existing systems up and running will always be a challenge, too.  CIOs are expected to charge ahead with bold initiatives designed to take organizations onward and upward at the same time we carry the weight of all of the organization's previous IT decisions.  Merging the two worlds isn't always easy and it can sometimes be incredibly frustrating.  Lately, for example, I've been working on plans for process changes, but those pesky old servers still need attention, too.

I mentioned earlier that my department is changing a bit.  We're working as fast and as hard as we can to get the hardware and services in place necessary to sustain our business process improvement efforts.  Nothing would be worse, for example, than announcing a new timesheet entry system only to have said system crash and burn on day one.  First, people would lose confidence in us and second, as we automate more and more processes, availability becomes all the more critical.

So, can one person do all this?

Nope.

That's what I have a great team of people behind me and why I work very closely with the other members of the executive team.  I've met a lot of people that think the CIO job is a one-person show.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I'm fortunate to have a great staff that understands where we're going, where I'm going and what we need to do to get there.  If I had to do all of this alone, I'd end up wearing a funny white suit with a lock on it.  With regard to the executive team, I won't say it's a utopia, but I really like working with them.  There are times when expectations and reality get a little out of whack, but the people I work with actually listen!

The CIO job is a lot like leading a group of traffic cops.  The person has got to know the rules of the road (the business processes), how to get people where they need to go, and how to get people to want to go in a certain direction.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

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