IT Still Doesn't Matter: Why aren't CIOs influencing business strategy?

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In McKinsey's latest survey on business technology, few executives say their IT leaders are closely involved in helping shape the strategic agenda, and confidence in IT's ability to support growth and other business goals is waning.  Furthermore, "executives' current perceptions of IT performance are decidedly negative."

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This sort of criticism of IT is not new.  

In fact, it goes all the way back to Nick Carr's 2003 IT Doesn't Matter article in Harvard Business Review. At the time, Carr managed to infuriate the CEOs of numerous IT companies, including Craig Barrett, Intel's CEO, along with Bill Gates and Larry Ellison.

"My point, however, is that it (IT) is no longer a source of advantage at the firm level - it doesn't enable individual companies to distinguish themselves in a meaningful way from their competitors. Essential to competitiveness but inconsequential to strategic advantage: that's why IT is best viewed (and managed) as a commodity."

- Nicholas Carr

At the time, there were numerous rebuttals to Carr's view, but none more powerful than the one from John Hagel and John Seely Brown.  They argued:

  • Extracting business value from IT requires innovations in business practices. In many respects, we believe Carr attacks a red herring - few people would argue that IT alone provides any significant business value or strategic advantage.
  • The economic impact from IT comes from incremental innovations, rather than "big bang" initiatives. A process of rapid incrementalism enhances learning potential and creates opportunities for further innovations.
  • The strategic impact of IT investment comes from the cumulative effect of sustained initiatives to innovate business practices in the near-term. The strategic differentiation emerges over time, based less on any one specific innovation in business practice and much more on the capability to continuously innovate around the evolving capabilities of IT.

According to JH3 and JSB: far from believing that the potential for strategic differentiation through IT is diminishing, we would maintain that the potential is increasing, given the growing gap between IT potential and realized business value.

So how does IT become more strategic?  

The Wall Street Journal's Rachael King recommends:

CIOs also need to bring some transparency to their operations by sitting down with business leaders and going over the budget and setting priorities together. The CIO needs to also actively market how the IT department is driving value in terms that business can understand. For example, Intel CIO Kim Stevenson recently published an annual IT report where she detailed how her department implemented advanced data analytics that helped drive $351 million in revenue for the company.  

The ability for Ms. Stevenson to demonstrate the value of her organization's work in dollars and cents is changing how IT is perceived in the company. It changes the relationship from that of a service provider, a department that helps people set up servers or configure PCs, to one that uses technology to solve business problems.

CIOs must demonstrate and quantify the business value of IT.

What does this mean for the sales people of IT company's trying to sell to CIOs?  It means that the role of the CIO is often supplanted by business executives.  (In my discussions with our clients, I often emphasize this point.)

IT is so strategic, one could argue, that it is no longer left to IT.  Often it is CMOs and other non-IT business executives who are actively pursuing the mobile, social, and analytics strategies that are creating the organizational pull for new approaches to rapid application development, and as a by-product, the cloud services offerings needed to enable those strategies.

The new generation of IT will support new business strategies. This means that any vendor selling IT solutions will have to speak the language of business strategy.  And most importantly, the vendor will have to show the client how to achieve the "promised" benefits of IT.

So here's the takeaway: CIOs must work on getting a place at the strategy table.  When they do, they are viewed as effective business partners.  What must the CIO do to be viewed as a strategic partner?

Ask:

- Does your company have a clear view of how advances in IT (Big Data, AI, IoT, Cloud Computing) is likely to reshape your relevant markets over the next five years?

- What areas of business growth can IT contribute to?

- Does your company have an equally clear view of the implications for the changes you will need to make to continue to create value?

- Are these views shared effectively among your senior managers across the organization?

- Does senior management recognize the risks and uncertainties as part of the decision-making process?

- Has your company been sufficiently aggressive in using IT to improve strategic areas of your operations?

- Are there opportunities to use IT to improve operations around existing products and services?

- Are their opportunities to use IT to significantly reduce costs and cycle time in existing work processes?

- What are the data sources? How will you monitor them? How do you trigger events based on the intelligence gathered from the data? Is there a profit or cost-savings optimization opportunity?

FURTHER READING
Why CIOs should be business-strategy partners Feb 2015, McKinsey
Most CIOs are Not Seen as Influencing Corporate Strategy: Report, Feb 2015, Wall Street Journal
Public Cloud a first choice for minority of projects: Gartner CIO survey, March 2015, ARN

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This page contains a single entry by Christian Sarkar published on May 13, 2015 5:34 AM.

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