j.ello on IT Part 6: Being Great at Everything But the Job


CIO Magazine has an archive of issues stretching back to 1994.  If you want to know what’s been on the minds of IT leaders over the last decade, CIO Magazine is a definitive source.  Notable among their works are the CIO Surveys.  After a decade of unparalleled innovation in computing, one might expect that the role of the IT leader has changed quite a bit, so I found this interesting:

In 1995, CIO’s reported that their number one priority was aligning IT and business goals. 
In 2005, CIO’s reported that their number one priority was aligning IT and business goals.

Allow me to illustrate the term “Alignment” for all the non-CIO’s out there.  Let’s say you’re in IT professional and you’ve been told to change a hard drive.  Instead, you choose to play Solitaire.  Your goals are not in “alignment” with the business goals.  Go ahead and extrapolate.

78% of the time, I have no sympathy for the 78% of the organizations that get absolutely zero value from their IT.

The truth is not quite so ludicrous, but certainly related.  What CIO’s are really trying to say is that they often don’t know what the goals of the business are, nor are they able to influence the organization in ways that would maintain continuity for IT, so they “think” they are doing the job, only to find out that they are not.  CIO’s feeling this way are either a victim of poor management, or are the poor management… and I am inclined to agree with both statements.

I return to the mantra, “IT is a reflection of the organization’s values“.  If IT is not a valued component of the business, those who hire the IT leaders will favor certain aspects of an applicant over aspects that would more readily serve the organization.  Once that happens, all bets are off.

In well-defined roles, it’s easier to find the best candidates.  COO’s, CFO’s… etc… there are time-honored benchmarks by which one can find people who create the best value for the organization.  There are no such benchmarks for hiring IT leaders, and even fewer for measuring performance.  So, organizations gravitate toward “general executive qualities”, which may or may not have anything to do with the job of managing the organization’s IT group.  That’s where the problem starts.

In CIO Mag’s 2006 Survey, despite the fact that 3/4 of CIO’s report an IT background, CIO’s overwhelmingly report that the skills most pivotal for their success are “Ability to communicate effectively” (70%) and “Strategic planning” (59%).  On the opposite side of that is “Thorough knowledge of technology options” (22%), “Negotiation Skills” (12%) and “Technical Proficiency” (12%).

Now, keep in mind that this survey question was “choose all that apply“.  Which means that 78%  of the #1 technology professionals in their organizations DO NOT believe that knowledge of technology is important enough to their jobs to even check the box.  Whaaaa….???

Imagine your CFO saying “Finance?  Not important.”… Or a contractor saying “I don’t need to know about building houses, I’ve got people for that.”…

And yet, these CIO’s are correct… knowing about technology actually isn’t pivotal to their “success”, insofar as it relates to going up the ladder 78% of the time.  This is why, 78% of the time, I have no sympathy for the 78% of the organizations that get absolutely zero value from their IT.

The CIO’s job can be summed up very briefly:  “To make technology available to the organization.” This is not to say that the CIO has to be the technical god of the group.  But the CIO is the person who has to make recommendations to the Executives, so if the CIO isn’t a champ at evaluating technology options, at knowing the critical questions to ask and at maintaining a relevant base of knowledge… even the best communicator, leader, planner in the world will still be a completely incompetent CIO.

I think there is at least some support for this argument based on the Survey’s 10 “Biggest Barriers to Job Effectiveness”.  Among these, CIOs report above all “Overwhelming backlog of requests and projects.”… “Shortage of time for strategic planning“… “Unrealistic/Unknown expectations from the business“… “Lack of alignment of IT and business goals” and “difficulty proving the value of IT“.

So, a CIO’s #1 priority is to align IT and Business goals, but it’s the biggest problem that prevents them from being successful.  That’s like someone who hangs drywall for a living saying “my biggest problem is falling drywall”… very disconcerting.  70% of CIO’s prize their ability to communicate effectively, but they find it difficult to prove the value of IT.  Many value their strategic planning skills, but have no time to do it.  But more importantly, with such low concern for technological competency and negotiation skills, is it any surprise that the requests and projects are out of control, and the expectations are so hard to manage?

Of course not… that’s why those things are a perpetual plague in the IT industry.

Now don’t go running to your CIO saying “this guy thinks you suck”.  This isn’t the fault of the CIO.  Every CIO I have met has been smart, engaging, and brimming with positive leadership qualities.  Damn fine people.  Many just lack very critical qualities that create big problems for an IT organization.  But CIO’s are hired based on the values of the organization, and as organizations begin to value IT more, more IT-critical qualities will be used to judge those they hire.

You don’t have to be an IT professional long before you see the big disconnect between what organizations want, and what they value.

How do you know organizations don’t value IT?

Deloitte conducts a CFO Survey. Interestingly, Controlling costs and providing better information to support the business are the two highest rated priorities, while Enhancing Information Systems barely registers on the chart. I’m not sure what accounts for those numbers… maybe they want to hire Scribes.  Additionally, CFOs report that “Implementing new technology” is the least of the main challenges facing the business.

You don’t have to be an IT professional long before you see the big disconnect between what organizations want, and what they value.  Over time, those two things will come more into line… until then, IT is going to have an unstable, ambiguous role in the organization… and all that implies.

Yes, that’s a bit of a downer, but I want to end this on an up note.  All this instability and lack of direction can actually be a really big positive for those willing to push the organization, champion and validate new technologies, and take charge on emerging issues that will undoubtedly go unnoticed at the upper levels.  You may not be thanked or paid any better now, but you’ll look a lot better as those qualities, that truly define an IT leader, become more critical in landing the big job.

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