Monday, January 25, 2010

How should vendors engage with the CIO

For IT Vendors, CIOs are a very sought after audience. As a result, they always solicit face contact with the CIO to pitch their wares, hoping to get a foothold in the company. These vary from license sellers (paper licenses or shrink-wrapped), hardware vendors, consumables, networking, security, applications, custom development, maintenance, testing services, manpower augmentation, staffing services, consulting, strategic alignment, and so on.

If I were to create a comprehensive list (which I will do some day), it would probably run into multiple pages! CIOs endeavor to keep these individuals and companies at bay, as they seem to be interested only in selling, and nothing else. Also, consider the fact that CIOs would only be listening to vendor pitches and groveling through the week, if vendors have their way.

Vendor pitches range from “the cheapest”, “cutting edge”, “better than the other”, and in a few rare cases, “solve business problems”. The majority fail to engage in a dialogue or listen, as if they have the entire routine by rote — the moment they are in front of the CIO, the Play button is activated! Unfortunately, only a handful of vendors understand the realities of your company or industry. The typical vendor repeats stories that may be out of context (based on experiences with companies or geographies, where the challenges are dissimilar to those faced by you).

With IT budgets either about to lapse (in a few cases) and new budget preparations (for most of us), vendors endeavor to wrangle their way into our minds. These heightened pitches tire the CIO, and in many cases fail to gain traction of any kind. The story repeats itself many times over, with the results remaining the same.

Albert Einstein said it very well, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. Vendors should stop selling, and start listening to their prime customers — the CIOs — on what they are working on, and then help them succeed. According to the Peter Drucker quote, “A customer never buys what we sell”. This is more so in the case of IT.

Every time a vendor approaches a CIO, his understanding of the CIO’s need should supersede the need to sell. Just the fact that you have a solution, does not imply that I have the problem!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Do we need an IT Budget ?

There is a general agreement that 70-80% of the IT budget (this figure varies depending on the reported overall IT operational spends) gets committed on the first day of the year. Whatever remains is typically spent on new initiatives and projects. While the reality may vary from company to company, the same question has been posed time and again in such a scenario.
So do CIOs need to prepare elaborate IT budgets?

In this context, one of the CIOs I was talking to mentioned that he has stopped preparing IT budgets altogether! Instead, he transfers all spends to the business, as they decide the business requirements — whether it’s operational or project driven. He asks them to justify why any project needs to be undertaken, and what should be the ROI. An interesting perspective, I must say.

Such maturity can be reached only in two situations. First is if the organization has evolved to a level where CXOs are in sync with reality and work in tandem towards achieving their objectives. The other situation entails that CXOs are totally disconnected, and have no faith in the CIO’s ability to manage his budgets.My survey of Indian enterprises (by talking to CIOs) reveals that operational IT expenses are typically lower than consultant projections — by about 10-15%. This is a reflection of our lower wage bills, and the ability of Indian CIOs to stretch their IT budgets a bit longer than their peers in other geographical regions.Does the learning from global CIOs stretching their budgets apply to Indian CIOs? To some extent, yes! But the big differentiator that most global enterprises depend upon to shrink costs has limited relevance in India — outsourcing to offshore vendors.

If the CIO splits his budget into two parts — operational IT (business as usual) and business IT (new or incremental projects creating value) — the management of IT budgets becomes easier. CIOs still have to run an efficient shop. Also, accountability still rests with the IT organization, when it comes to managing the overall infrastructure, applications and relationships that create an ecosystem to support business operations. Improvements driven by new technology trends and innovation are essential, and this is what IT organizations have to excel in — even if it is outsourced. The placeholder for such spend is not relevant, whether it is integrated with the business budget or a separate IT budget, as the cost is finally allocated across business units.

Business IT or strategic IT is a larger discussion. The CIO’s maturity and relationship with CXOs is the key to success. Working in step with his/her peer group, a CIO can influence the outcome, which is whether the budget is approved or not. My belief is that an individual CIO who aspires for lateral growth should understand how to manage within a budget. At the same time, he must understand the impact he creates on business operations, customers and stakeholders. For this alone, the IT budget’s ownership has to rest with the CIO.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Reality Check for IT Consultants

In an event for CIOs, I had the opportunity to meet with, and listen to a bunch of IT consultants from global consulting and IT companies. All of them presented their view of the CIO challenges and opportunities, and without exception sounded like they had dug into the same library or archive to create slides which said the same thing — though the words were different, to their credit. This presentation made to a gathering of more than 50 CIOs stunned the audience. And this was not because the CIOs were bowled over by the analysts’ insights, but because the presentation was disconnected from reality.

Consultants have a wonderful habit of looking down upon their audience in a condescending way while preaching their version of truth, which says, “I know better than you, and I have a prescription for the ills that pain you”.

So the consultants under discussion were attempting to advise CIOs of their current challenges, reality and cures for the situation. While the number of points was consistently at 10 (wonder why everything has to be “top 10”!), the order of appearance of the topics was not in sync. The most interesting part was that no one, I repeat no one, in the audience agreed with the consultants. So the questioning began:

  1. Did you actually survey or speak to CIOs and CEOs to create this list?
  2. What was the sample size?
  3. How many of them were located in India (since the presentation is being made to Indian CIOs)?
  4. Considering the sample of more than 50 CIOs in this room, did anyone here participate?

As the cross-questioning got uncomfortable, the consultants were tying themselves into knots and literally sweating (despite adequate air-conditioning). One of them had the audacity to state that, “I am the consultant and speaker for this session; you have to listen to me!”
That was the last straw for most, and the duel almost resulted in an unsavory situation. It was rescued by the organizers — just in time.

It is evident that the CIO has a better connection with reality and business. The challenges and opportunities for Indian CIOs do not revolve around Business Speak or Alignment, but Value Add, Enabling Business and Growth. Global consulting companies are slow in realizing this trend, as the world at large still revolves around the US for them (maybe because most of them are headquartered in US).

The post event networking saw a face-saving quote from one of the consultants. “I was asked to provoke the audience, and I succeeded in doing that”.

Friday, January 01, 2010

IT enabling the CXO

A close friend narrated this incident about a CEO who asked the IT organization for three laptops. The first one for use in the office, second during travel, and the third to be used at his residence! It was one of those unchallengeable CEO mandates. My friend thought of this incident as a compliance issue or misuse of power vested with the position. To me, it was interesting that the CEO even thought of such an arrangement without realizing the improbability of how it will aid his work.

Every organization endeavors to define and execute policy with minimal exceptions. These are discussed, debated and agreed upon by the management — signed off too, in a few cases. Everything works well until the first exception request. Such requests typically come from a high performer or a CXO who states constraints within the defined boundaries. Thus begins the dilemma which is normally taken as an acceptable deviation to aid the CXO/high performer, as no one wants to leave any room for doubt when it comes to performance.

The IT organization struggles to maintain normalcy, since the precedent is taken as the new norm. After a while, only two choices remain — change the rulebook or try to save face by diligently documenting each exception. The third alternative is really not an option, since it means that you have to take a tough stance and deny the request. Is there a way out of such a predicament, especially when you consider that powers vested with the CIO are not absolute and can be overridden by the “business requirement”?

Coming back to the story of the “three laptop” CEO, I asked my friend about how the CEO proposed to use this distributed computing to his advantage? Did he not realize that he was misusing his executive powers which may be challenged by the Board of Directors or may set an avoidable example for other CXOs to emulate? I was advised that the CEO was creating value, and by virtue of this, the Board may allow such small indiscretions and look the other way.

In such cases, I believe the relationship and openness existing between the CIO and CEO will play an important role (where healthy discussion and debate exists), as does a possibility of influencing the decision. CIOs should work diligently to build and sustain this relationship to remain relevant and successful within an enterprise.

What about you? Would you acquiesce to such a request?