Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How to become a CIO

Someone asked me a seemingly innocuous question "How do I become a CIO ?"

It set into motion a thought process and I began to wonder. So here is the result of the wondering in a step by step how to. There could be many more questions in the list, but I restricted myself to the ones that matter the most.

  1. You have to want to become one
  2. Some one should be willing to hire you as one
  3. Ask yourself the questions below:
  • Do you understand business activities well specific to your industry as well as generically ?
  • Are you good at numbers, budgets, reconciliations, metrics ?
  • Can you confidently present in a management group meeting without being tongue-tied ?
  • Do people within your team and your users trust you ?
  • Can you negotiate well with a vendor or a user ?
  • Are you able to resolve conflict ?
  • Are you able to hold your head high and have a disagreement with your boss without getting beaten up ?
  • Can you talk in a language that non-IT folks can understand ?
  • Are you able to deliver results as promised ?

If the answer to any of the questions above is NO, then work upon making it a yes. If you get more than 2 NO, then you are not yet ready.

If you got all YES and are not yet a CIO, then go to point 1 and 2. The only other reason can be you are a consultant.

Update: After being asked the question umpteen times by readers, I wrote the sequel to this piece, How to become a CIO - Part 2

Technovation - Fueling Innovation in the Technology Organization

Technology divisions of most organizations have transformed themselves over time from good-old EDP departments to IT / IS functions and more currently into Business - Technology Divisions. Their image and perception with in their organizations changed over time.

A well run technology outfit is no more important (or less) than a Marketing, HR or a Finance department, in supporting the organization to do business efficiently. It has to contribute equally (if not more) in all the important aspects of running the organization, be it Profitability, Growth, Customer Delight or Cash Generation.

In the constantly changing business environment, it is not only imperative for the IT shops to embrace and work along with the changes but it is now extremely critical for them to be able to excel incessantly and innovatively in helping the organization to meet its goals of Profitability, Growth, Customer Delight etc.

What can a CIO do to put the IT shop into the path of Innovation? Is there a success formula? Probably there is no single formula which can work well across all IT teams, but CIOs can certainly follow a few of the below well known and easy to implement practices to encourage innovation with in their teams.

Keep your Eyes, Ears and Mind open – The first advice given to a fresh MBA class by a senior professor. The Mind part is specifically significant because what one sees, reads and listens could be very different when done attentively with an open mind, without any bias or stereotyping. Many organizations have practiced idea generation as an exercise and some follow it continuously. They have a dedicated email address where one can mail their ideas to. Some organizations also encourage anonymous submissions over a portal. CIOs can help their teams by being open to ideas from their team as well as others. By being open to ideas and by seeking fresh ideas from the team, CIOs can create an innovation friendly environment.

Shut your monitor off every day for half an hour – Take a trip to the shop floor. Meet the Sales and Marketing folks. Key people in the IT team (more the merrier) can be in touch with reality by interacting regularly with colleagues from other functions. One can learn what co-workers in other areas do on a normal business day with or with out any help from technology. It would be more effective if these interactions happen on the shop floor rather than in a meeting room or their own chambers. Knowledge / Learning from these interactions can be recorded and shared with the IT group over the team portal. If there is no portal, share the key learning during the regular team meetings.

Mohammed goes to the Mountain – Inviting senior business leaders to address technology teams during the regular IT team meetings can help too. Apart from being motivational during these meetings, the CIO can appeal to the business leaders to have a candid interaction with the team and also share their business challenges and how they intend to tackle them. Perspectives from such open discussions will help the team to come up with innovative solutions at the right time.

Private Practice – A few highly successful organizations, such as 3M and Google, follow the practice of encouraging their employees to work and develop up on any product that interests them for a certain percentage of their weekly work time. The results surely are encouraging if the innovative success of these companies is any barometer. Similarly, some companies, like UnitedHealth Group, encourage their employees to operationally excel thereby continuously improving the processes and benefiting the customer as well as the organization. CIOs can encourage the IT folks to come up with their own search for technology improvements in different areas of the organization and then support them to implement those improvements in agreement with the concerned functions.

Gather and analyze information – There is always a lot of information which does not get captured. It could be information related to a particular process; about how a customer uses technology to generate a report; or a simple feedback of technology services from customers. Just like a business can benefit by taking business actions based on data analysis, CIOs could benefit if they can capture and analyze relevant data which could be important to run their shops. These data sets, like our universe, are expanding continuously. Thanks to the reducing storage costs, it is not that expensive anymore to become data-expansive.

Which of these practices should one adopt? Do I go through the list and try all or I choose one and then move to the other if it does not work? There is no single strategy that fits everyone like one size does not fit all. You may arrive at your own strategy based on an assessment of the challenges and opportunities that are present within your world. A combination of ideas across the few listed and some that you may have already attempted will show you the path you need to traverse towards successful innovation.

Happy Innovating.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Clouds bring hazy weather and El Nino is a worry

Over the last few months, I have been asked to participate in many surveys and discussions on Cloud Computing. Everyone is attempting to find when will enterprise customers start adopting this new technology which promises to change the world of IT. There have been debates about public clouds and private cloud infrastructure, as more recently heterogeneous clouds. The first time I gained some insight about Cloud Computing, it was when I read the wonderful book "Big Switch" by Nicholas Carr. I thought I understood what he talked about, and then I met so many vendors and consultants. Every time I look at the sky, see the Clouds, but the picture remains hazy.

The term itself has become a kind of misnomer with vendors and consultants twisting it around to suit their reality and service/product offering. Based on various reports and anecdotal references across the web, it would appear that tapping the wonderful world of Cloud Computing is as simple as buying a subscription to a public cloud service and your computing woes will disappear before you could utter (what else) "Cloud Computing" ! Software vendors want you to believe that their SaaS offerings are an offering of cloud infrastructure. Almost all the big IT vendors, be it red, blue or any other color have announced investments into clouds. PE funds are asking startups to create services around clouds. Optimism over understanding and reality ?

In my context which is validated with many other peers in the industry, the reality for every enterprise is the heterogeneous nature of the current computing fabric comprising many operating environments, databases and middleware running across all types of hardware. Bandwidth is as yet pricey in the Indian context and not yet ubiquitous. Data privacy concerns as yet remain unaddressed. So the context of leveraging public clouds as yet remains challenged not to forget the paranoia about the data being hosted on shared infrastructure.

What does this mean for the CIO ? Simply put, listen to every view and opinion on how your enterprise can leverage the wonderful world of Cloud Computing. Look at your current reality and then set forth to leverage what you have with a mix of the standard and now maturing technologies like virtualization and clustering (or grid) to create your own "private cloud" which will definitely bring you efficiency within your existing investments.

As the marketplace matures and vendors begin to understand how enterprises consume computing power, the traction is likely to improve and we will start seeing real life scenarios of how this technology can start driving efficiencies within IT organizations as well as deliver better TCO and ROI.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Strategic or Operational CIO ! Making choices

Not so long ago on a Saturday, I was invited to a day long meeting of a few selected high profile CIOs. As the meeting started, one of them was in and out of the room for about 30 minutes. With every journey in and out, his pressure level appeared to be going up a few notches. Until he decided that he had to be managing the crisis that hit his IT service and left the meeting quickly with a promise to return as soon as the crisis has been overcome. His company had one of the oldest running relationships with the outsourced service provider and the subject of a few case studies too. And that was the last we saw of him for the day !

The remaining CIOs looked at each other in amazement and wondered what happened to the good old adage of delegation and empowerment of teams. One also commented that he never believed the impacted person to be "Operational CIO" and everyone nodded their heads in unison. This makes one wonder the "Strategic CIO" tag that almost every CIO wants to attach against their names is reality or just an aspiration ?

A few hours into the meeting, another phone ran amongst the remaining CIOs and after a few minutes on the phone during which everyone was on pause, the CIO in question mentioned, that he had a situation which his team called to apprise him of and he was confident that they would overcome it. The meeting continued with his equal participation.

Two sides of the CIO within a span of a couple of hours. Is this personality driven or Organization dependent ?

I believe that both play a role in the making the CIO either Operational or Strategic. The CIO has to build a team that s/he can empower and is willing to trust to take the best and the most pragmatic approach in the case of a crisis. The Organization has to experience the ability of the IT team to manage adversity with or without the leader's direct presence. The CIO has to let go and manage expectations with the rest of the Organization. In most cases the team will live up to the confidence placed on them. If the general belief is that the team will not overcome, then they will wait for the CIO to take the decision; on the contrary, if the team is empowered, they will in almost all cases rise to the situation.

If the Organization has a cultural issue with every senior manager calling the CIO for even a small issue, then the sad reality is that the CIO will be seriously challenged to demonstrate strategic intent as the operational burden will ensure that there is no time to even think about anything remotely strategic. Such an enterprise becomes the death knell of a strategic CIO leader.

The insecure CIO tends to become operational and the spiral downwards happens too quickly thereafter. Overcoming the subsequent burden can sometimes take a lifetime (at least within that company for the CIO). One could also argue to say that the General elected to fight with the soldiers from the trenches. But what good is a dead General to the forces ?