Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flood of invites, Tsunami of events, and a drowning CIO

It is fairly evident that the economy’s achieved a turnaround. Most key indicators (including inflation) are heading north. The IT industry is also seeing an upswing, and increased spending from customers. So vendors are now back with fresh marketing budgets. In their endeavor to woo CIOs, the number of seminars, events, offsite workshops and entertainment has suddenly increased manifold.

Levels of noise have reached such a crescendo that if the CIO were to accept every invite that came his way, he’d probably spend a couple of days every month at work. To add to this, the assorted freebies and writing instruments given away at each such a gathering would fill up available office space.

The question is, are there no other ways to engage the IT decision makers?

Typical event invites have eye catching headlines interspersed with buzz words like “Cloud Computing” or “Green” (the hot favorites for now), which is enough to entice the CIO’s participation. The content has rarely any connection to these across most events. However, since there still remains fuzziness about interpretation of these, the poor IT Heads end up hoping to gain some insights about what these really mean for them in real life. The cycle continues with almost every vendor, irrespective of whether they are software players, hardware vendors or just service providers. Another noticeable trend has been to couch the topic in business terms like “Agility” or “Profitable Growth”. CIOs start wondering if they would miss some key trend, and again end up disillusioned within the first hour.

Most events are scheduled for the evening, and start with a technology discourse—supposed to be presented by a thought leader. Poor last minute substitutions are becoming the norm (unavoidable circumstances, reminds me of the “technical glitch” with airlines), with a Sales or Marketing person who ends up reading through the presentation. This is followed by the panel discussion with a set of clueless speakers.

A frustrated audience sits through the ordeal out of sheer decency. A few end up catching up on email or leave with their cell phones glued to their ear, citing exigencies that need their attention. Those who do stay until the end find the networking damp, the time spent a sheer waste, and promise themselves not to attend another event.

Give us a break—respect the CIO!

Marketing budgets thus spent rarely provide value to the IT companies. I believe that the IT industry needs to evaluate ROI models used while planning such forays. While I agree about the need to engage decision makers in discussion and dialogue, other alternatives can be used with greater efficacy. Unearth real life business problems, and explore how the offered solution can practically solve it. Use case studies, customer speak, and focused discussion around the issue.
Don’t get upset when 10% of confirmations turn up for the event; ‘regrets’ are the enlightened ones who have suffered similar gatherings. The ‘no shows’ have probably spoken to CIOs who declined your requests, or found another interesting venue (at the courtesy of a different IT vendor).

So consider accepting substitutions from the next layer of participating IT personnel. These participants are more likely to engage in a technical discussion than the CIO. But this will not happen for too long, since they’ll also evolve towards becoming business savvy, and get flooded with invites.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What's on the CIO Dashboard ?

March is a very interesting month for most Indian companies. This is the financial year end for a majority; it also brings to focus the ritual of performance appraisals. For a few, this is probably the only time for a formal discussion and feedback session. Irrespective of the frequency of meetings with your Manager, this one holds a lot of importance, as its outcome determines the quantum of increase in compensation and benefits, variable pay, and promotions. Thus, everyone starts preparing for this very important meeting with their manager. The higher you go up the hierarchy, the more intense the discussion. And this is where the CIO dashboard starts making a difference.

Typically, IT was used to measure uptimes, availability, application response time, and similar technology related indicators. These were deemed critical, and most meetings ended up discussing slow application response times or lack of support during month end peaks. This used to happen until realization of the futility of such measures (across the table), as these parameters did not present a true picture of the ground reality.

In the meanwhile, the IT Head also got smarter in his evolution into the CIO role. He began correlating with business outcomes in such a way that the audience began to appreciate discussion around parameters that they understood. Projects were reviewed on timelines and budgets; somewhere, the additional parameter “business value” was added, and everyone agreed. Quite a few technology solutions and consulting companies continue to offer CIO dashboards revolving around the old paradigm of availability and budgets. Today, there’s enough buzz around the business outcomes, but these are not yet figuring on the CIO dashboards.

CIO dashboards are now no different from that of other CXOs, with maybe one or two IT specific metrics being reported or monitored. One of them could be the disaster recovery site’s health, should the business contingency plan be put into action. The second may revolve around the IT organization’s financial health, considering that most IT budgets are now equivalent to an SME’s business balance sheet. As organizations adopt balance scorecards across the enterprise, the discussion around CXO dashboards become irrelevant. As business evolves from viewing reports to dashboards to gaining actionable insights into key business activities, I believe that the dashboards will be relegated to history. Our current state matters, and what we did to reach where we are. It’s also important to know why we are here, and where we should head for.

Annual appraisals bring this into the limelight, as this is probably the best discussion that most CEOs have with the CIO. Clarity of thought is important, as you prepare for this discussion. Maybe, it’s time to challenge the CEO (or whoever your Manager is), on the metrics for your next evaluation.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Challenges of an upturn

All the analysts have just wound up their discussion about the challenges faced during a downturn. There have been many stories, case studies, and insights on how to survive. In a few cases, the focus even went to topics such as how to thrive in an economy that challenged everyone.

Some parts of the world continue to face issues, albeit to a lesser degree. The turnaround time required for these players is slower than developing nations, where the upswing is visible, and there is already talk about withdrawal of government instituted stimulus. With the sun just beginning to raise its head over the horizon and returning growth, the problems of economic growth have already started bothering companies.

Problems? Yes, economic growth has its issues. I’m referring to the problem of talent retention.

During recessionary trends and slowdown, organizations tightened their belts. Increments were frozen cold, and many took a cut (which hurt), but then it was better than losing your job. Bonuses and variable pay were also victims of the reducing top lines. Most business units squeezed out costs. Thus, fixed costs came down, and helped generate better profitability ratios than ever imagined by many enterprises. Employees stayed put, and worked diligently to help companies tide over difficult times.

By the turn of the year, growth was back in the black. Suddenly, there were murmurs within companies about reinstatement of imposed cuts. Will bonuses be paid again? What kind of increments can employees expect? Predatory companies also saw this as a great opportunity to cherry pick bright talent from competitors, and across verticals. In a few cases, these organizations even targeted high potential individuals by name.

With no clarity, communication or delayed reaction from their own companies, these individuals decided to take the mercenary approach and move on to the highest bidder. The trickle that started late last year, has suddenly assumed scary proportions in many companies. Talent retention has come to the fore, and is now the highest priority for some of the impacted companies.

Inhouse IT organizations will see a high impact due to the coming back of “good times”, since most technical skills are not industry dependent. At the same time, IT companies are hiring (or announcing targets for people acquisition) with a frenzy similar to the scene witnessed during Y2K days (there used to be a standing joke “Trespassers will be hired”). Can CIOs work around this problem with proactive steps (or in a few instances, even go against the enterprise timelines), to retain their best?

I believe that a few CIOs will be able to ring-fence their teams, but many will suffer through the year. Some will end up hiring the best talent from other companies. However, no CIO can afford to sustain a lack of action, as status quo is not an option.

Monday, March 08, 2010

What keeps CIOs awake at night

Do CIOs sleep well, or they are subservient to problems, issues, alerts, emails, etc that keeps them away from their 40 winks? I have been asked this question many a time, and then some more. So it does make me wonder whether CIOs are indeed a sleep deprived lot. So let’s track down the issues that CIOs grapple with (the current perception at least—in many cases, also the truth).

If business runs on IT, then system availability will be first on the list. This is a combination of network, server, applications, and everything in between. Do CIOs get nightmares about downtime? I guess a few do, but most don’t, as their deputy (or the Head of Infrastructure), along with the application owners will typically be tasked with this. The ball does indeed stop at the CIO’s desk, but rarely contributes to insomnia.

Second on the list is that of critical projects meeting expectations on the fronts of budget, time and quality. In a few cases, this will also include delivering business value. These deliverables also get discussed in management meetings, and thus have higher visibility within peer CXOs (and to that extent accountability, with the CIO). When projects do go awry, it is quite likely that the CIO has to intervene and manage expectations (read as damage control). So it is likely that challenged projects may adversely impact the CIO’s ability to have a good night’s rest, unless if the CIO is on top of the situation as the project unfolds. In such situations he can obviate the need for uncomfortable dialogue.

What about budgets? In times of cost cutting and most businesses coming out of survival mode, also referred to as the ‘new normal’, there is indeed pressure to think out of the box to sustain operations at lower costs, while finding innovative ways to fund new projects. Relationships with partners and vendors have now reached a new plane, which discards most benchmarks from the past. While many CIOs are able to balance the investment versus cost debate, some dread the thought of another discussion with the CFO. However, this contribution towards the bedroom woes may be negligible.

Last on the list is talent retention or attrition, depending on how one looks at it. In bad times, people stay, in good times when you need them, they leave. It’s a simple demand and supply equation that CIOs have to struggle with. While the supply may be plentiful, you cannot replace a DBA with a Business Analyst and hope to do well. Outsourcing can help de-risk partially. Thus, in the era of shrinking teams and increasing churn, the CIO’s ability to hold the team together goes a long way towards the IT organization’s success. Probably something to keep the CIO awake on the day he receives one more resignation.

The reality is that one of these remains in focus for most CIOs. These focal points change periodically. At the same time, CIOs are focusing more on business measures and not IT focused ones. Maturity of the service delivery models, coupled with partner evolution (See: The evolving IT Service Provider), has contributed to some of these not being on the radar (as much as they were in the past).

So do business issues like lack of growth, profitability of the company, supply chain issues, product or service availability keep the CIO from sleeping well? Probably as much it does to other CXOs in a cohesively knit enterprise.

I guess a wise man said it well, “Work pressure is real, but stress is optional”. So my answer to the questions has been, “I sleep well at night”—at least, most of the time !

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Are you happy being a CIO ?

It doesn’t matter which conference you go to, or who is the person at the discussion’s other end — Whenever the CIO’s evolution is examined, the other person always has a view on what should be a CIO’s next role. Multiple propositions get discussed, including that of the COO and CEO. Sometimes, the lateral inclusions are in supply chain, logistics or human resources, rarely in finance or marketing. But is the CIO an interim position that has to evolve into some other role? Why can’t CIOs be happy being good CIOs?

A few weeks back, a reporter called me. She said that I was one of the few people she knew who was happy being a CIO. She had not come across too many such people within her contact book despite having hundreds of listed CIOs. So this discussion continued on whether a CIO should necessarily move on to another role. If yes, which one?

I wondered a bit as she continued her excited chatter — what’s wrong in being a CIO, and that too a good one! Why is the world interested in my evolution to another CXO’s role (as if other CXOs would be extremely delighted to fill in my shoes)?

Apart from technology expertise, CIOs by virtue of providing technology enabled systems and processes across the enterprise have unparalleled visibility in terms of what happens across each function. They are expected to “know” the business, as well as understand the domain specific challenges and opportunities. Such a knowledge level is essential to provide new technology solutions, whether it’s marketing, sales, warehousing, finance or any other. Typically, this gets referred to as the wonderful world of “IT-business alignment”. Such opportunities give them an advantage over others from the CXO domain who may not have this opportunity (or the interest). Best of all, other CXOs do not get measured for knowing other functions and their ability to engage, let’s say the head of supply chain, in a discussion on the best put-away process.

This advantage and ability to influence business outcomes opens up possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, the CIO could take on additional responsibilities beyond “mundane” IT. In all possibility, he can bring about the best while improving the present. Analytical abilities come to the forefront at this point, whereupon the CIO typically challenges status quo, seeking a better tomorrow. So the question of whether a CIO is ready to take on the role of another CXO or a COO becomes irrelevant. If we push the envelope a bit further, he even has a remote chance of being a CEO. So pressure starts to build upon the CIO to get on with it.

So what’s wrong in being a good CIO? Why can’t the CIO remain in the current role and evolve it into a meaningful contributor to the organization (a difficult task to consistently execute)? At this point, the Board may benevolently grant a seat in the Boardroom’s hallowed chambers with other CXOs, executive and non-executive directors. The CIO then reaches the pinnacle of success within his role’s dimensions. Sustaining this peak position obviously requires as much effort as it took to get there. It’s at this juncture that the CIO can be deemed ready to challenge any CXO and succeed in the new role. Of course, this requires the ecosystem to at least be neutral (if not positive) towards the CIO. A negative or a non-conducive environment will be a challenge for any CXO, including the CIO. (See Are Boards ready for the CIO?)

Time to get back to the question “Are you happy being a CIO?” If you are, great! Build upon your success, challenge the organization, and keep on asking the question, “What do I need to do to get to the Boardroom?” If you aren’t, you are probably a CIO by accident or unable to find the magic formula for success (the magic formula is for another day). If you face a personal crisis on your role as a CIO, you should find yourself a mentor or coach who can help. Otherwise, go and find the right job for yourself !