Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I am a new CIO

Recent past has seen many young IT professionals make the grade and move up the hierarchy to take on the responsibility of IT Head, some also getting the coveted title of the CIO. For those who made the cut within the same company, it was new found responsibility with new peers willing to guide through the maze. The rest in new positions in new companies charting unknown waters, every swell appeared to trigger emotions of “Titanic” proportions.

One such new CIO gingerly approached for help, tips, advice, anything to help navigate shark and pirate infested courses. Going down memory lane (it was a long lane) trying to collate the thoughts across each early success and challenge, the gushing emotions had to be controlled to provide coherent thought. So we agreed to meet again and mine the memories for actionable insights that can be specifically applied and get some general good practices (almost like doing Business Intelligence, can we call this Mental Intelligence).

Is there a checklist or step-by-step approach that can be used by a new IT leader to gain success ? The answer is yes and no. Yes because there is indeed a framework that helps get started irrespective of variations across different industries or size of company; no because it is not cast in stone and needs to be adapted to the context determined by corporate culture, politics, and industry and company growth. But something is better than nothing. So here is a set of guiding principles; the list is not exhaustive due to space constraints. 
  1. Listen. Understand the business, the technology, the rationale behind the decisions taken, the people involved. Take notes and validate them to ensure you have the facts captured accurately.
  2. Observe. People dynamics is important to success. See how your peers and other heads interact and behave with each other. It gives you perspectives on key influencers and roadblocks
  3. Ask questions. Everyone loves giving away knowledge to the “ignorant”; clarify your doubts and seek to unearth the assumptions if you are in a new industry. Gather finer nuances that make your company different.
  4. Bond. Not just with your team, but also across other peers and across management layers. Be approachable and yet confident of your capability that has got you here so far.
  5. Communicate. When you speak (a people language), do it in a way that you connect with others and they are able to understand you. Whether it is good or bad news, focus on the issue, not personalities.
  6. Manage Expectations. As the newbie expectations will be high or none with most somewhere in between. Set realistic expectations, sometimes stretch, but never overpromise. 
  7. Always meet people. Don’t wait for a problem, issue or project to meet that is transactional and does not build relations. Have a coffee with as many people as often as possible, including vendors.
 Finally if you get stuck seek help from other CIOs or even your boss. Good performers need coaches too.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Language curriculum for CIOs or ...

The Chairman of the Indian entity of a leading global IT vendor addressing a gathering of CIOs stressed on the (now so obvious) fact that CIOs should speak in business language. Everyone in the audience agreed and appreciated this repetition like the fact that “sun rises in the east”. The senior statesman then went on to present a dozen slides on why virtualization and consolidation should be on the CIO agenda.

A group of CIOs visited an international event hoping to learn from interactions with their global peers and gain different perspectives. While the IT vendor companies represented in the event were somewhat similar considering the global nature of the IT industry, the speakers were different providing a local flavour of the country. Majority of the sessions stressed on the same fact “sun rises from the east”, I mean CIOs need to speak the language of the business. They however presented in complex detail the technology solutions that they wanted the CIOs to buy.

Excuse me ? Did we (the CIOs) miss something? No, we did not doze off during the presentation and neither did we see you skip some slides in your presentation which may have connected to the obvious fact. We were attentive and so was everyone until the tech stuff started. There were many messenger, text, and email messages flying in the room to check that we were all in hearing the same thing. Excusez-moi or should I say Entschuldigen Sie, maybe if you like I can try another language. But where is the connection ? How many of the CIOs in the room were part of your sample size ?

Over the years, IT was nudged, pushed and coerced to discard techno-speak in favour of what everyone else speaks in the enterprise; the quick compliance and transition surprised many and helped bridge the perception about individual and team capability. Projects were no longer about the next big technology or the latest versions of the fancy devices, they embodied holistic discussions around internal process and external customers. On the other hand for some reason the industry refuses to acknowledge the change continuing to cite examples of a shrinking minority of change averse IT leaders.

So how can this perception be changed ? How do CIOs ensure that what they say is what the IT vendors and consultants hear ? I believe that it is time to start challenging the well-wishing speakers to cite examples when they talk about the language course CIOs need and not hide behind the global research reports of named companies to justify their spiel. Can they speak more from personal experience ? For them to be heard, maybe they need to talk business, unless this is a ploy to hide their inability to speak the new language of the CIO.

For the CIO, the sun indeed rises in the east, but maybe just maybe it needs to rise from the west for the vendors and consultants to notice that the CIO has passed the language course with flying colours; maybe it is the vendors and consultants who need the course after all !

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Power to say No

Over the years for the business dependence on IT has grown to reach a state that it is unimaginable to think of any business running without IT. I am sure that we can start creating a list of exceptions which may be different by geography or economic classification, but predominantly every business operation uses IT to sustain, grow, diversify, improve, analyse, and a lot more.

Over the years the IT Head also transformed through the journey working lock step with the demands of the organization providing the necessary solutions, sometimes wildly successful and challenged, delayed or unsuccessful. Through the era the IT leader kept moving outward from the glasshouse to the factory, warehouse, corporate office, and field and wherever the internal customer was present, and then beyond to where the external customer lived.

Over the years as the transition occurred to the CIO, the discussion changed from the nuts and bolts, three letter acronyms, servers, routers, hardware, software, networking, to business process, order to cash, procure to pay, customer analytics, increasing revenue, strengthening the bottom line, creating competitive differentiation, managing supply chains, collaboration with the suppliers and customers, new business opportunities, until the difference with other CXOs started blurring.

Over the years one characteristic that has not changed is the acceptance of demands = reasonable or otherwise, requirements - rational or not, time pressure to deliver - urgent or not, budget cuts - downturn or not, accepting everything business desired, spoke about, or demanded. The IT function was expected to stay subservient to cajoling, coercion, ransom, threats, with the proverbial sword hanging inches from the neck; if you cannot do it, we will find ways outside to get it done a la shadow IT.

IT was not expected to challenge, they were expected to deliver; whether it is a report that no one sees, a quick fix that stays in UAT for weeks beyond the deadline, systems that saw usage drop faster than the stock market in the downturn, one liners or vague or assumptive requirement definitions, or in recent times consumer devices to be connected to corporate networks. A challenge or denied service was sacrilegious and a pile of turndowns could lead to “lack of alignment” to what business wants.

With increasing comfort with business, conviction, and communication, CIOs have looked the other in the eye and engage in a non-confrontational debate which has germinated into acceptance of the CIO viewpoint and its intent only to the best interest of the enterprise. It’s a newly discovered facet that boosts confidence and fuels itself; the spark is now traveling virulently. CIOs have created the freedom to say “No” to the unreasonable and ill-defined.

When any discussion is based on data, facts, and sound logic, the outcome normally takes predictable route. The acceptance of the CIO into the “Inner Circle” is happening; the retention requires practice of democratic principles. CIOs should exercise this power judiciously and use it to create a better solution or paradigm that encompasses hitherto unused tenets. It takes some wisdom to differentiate between the need and the want and not play favourites; it is always a bad time for dictators who can be overthrown quickly.

Go and exercise this choice, you will be surprised !

Monday, August 08, 2011

Can the CIO help improve Customer Service ?

The headline for the discussion said “Business transformation”, the participants were CIOs across different consumer facing service industries, the audience a mix of 80 odd CIOs wanting to take away some pearls of wisdom from the collective experience of over 100 years on stage; after all not too often you get to hear success stories on how business has been transformed by CIOs with a mix of people, process and technology.

It started off well demonstrating the rich experience of the moderator who put across some sharp questions to the CIOs. Into the discussion, a couple of service incidents specific to their company had the CIOs on the defensive in an attempt to rationalize what appeared to be process lapses. Few from the audience joined the charge and soon it appeared to be a “Consumer redressal forum” with the hapless CIOs on the dais unable to defend and afraid to rebut the moderator. A brave soul from the audience chastised the moderator for diverting from the core subject and the personal affront to the CIOs. Sensing trouble, the organizers closed the discussion citing time constraints.

Later in the day a debate set off between a few panellists and a bunch of CIOs on whether CIOs can influence service outcomes in the call centre, field service, or responses received by the customers. Service exceptions are reality despite the best intentions and efforts of the enterprise. With attrition being sky high in service functions, training time has been shrinking with on the job training becoming a norm for some.

Even when process and technology has been engineered for effectiveness, the people challenge remains. So what options exist for an enterprise and what can the CIO do to create a consistent framework that the enterprise can depend to provide consistent, scalable process driven service outcomes across geographies ? Is there a best practice that can help to reduce the customer pain ?

Products entice a first time buy, but services create repeat customers. Irrespective of how the service is delivered, via call centre, on premise break-fix or at service centre, it is important to set expectations and manage customer interaction with empathy. Sears coined the “Customer is always right” paradigm; in the current hyper competitive world and unreasonable expectations, the customer has the ability to take her business away to competition.

Enterprises need to stay connected to the customer via all channels seeking and listening to feedback that is out in the social media. It is a space to watch not just what they are saying about your company, but also competitors. I believe that every CXO including the CIO should stay aware of the pulse of the services and continuously improve on the experience with a feedback loop. After all your customers can be your best sales persons and success (or an irate customer) is only 140 characters away.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Surviving Audits

Once upon a time (actually not too long ago) a company and its audit firm lost their marbles indulging in innovative accounting and logic belying practices. The event resulted in the first shutting down and the other being dismantled. Hapless citizens and investors who put their faith in these lost their financial safety nets and were left poorer. The aftershocks felt by the rest of the companies created an industry around consulting services. SOX became a bad word for all CXOs and everyone dreaded facing audits. Compliance gained prominence and everything else was subservient to it.

IT being the foundation of processes and information enabling the enterprise came under the scanner; it was not enough to demonstrate that data integrity and consistency is maintained, it was also important to provide evidence that others in the organization did not violate process that could result in potential loss of control. Thus as the custodian of the physical information assets and the administrator of the logical processes, the IT organization had to fend off auditors of all types at unnerving frequencies.

Consultants thrived on FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) factor as non-compliance had severe ramifications for the CIO, CFO, COO and the CEO. Perceptions of risk heightened the tension with any risk classified as high needed immediate attention. Tolerance levels of Boards tended to zero and Risk Committees hounded the functional heads to comply by the written word, who turned to the CIO to address the sane and inane collectively.

Whether it is Internal, Statutory or Third Party Audit, the basic intent is to review process execution consistently against good practice and compliance to stated policy. Additional frameworks on quality, process maturity, security and others provide the enterprise incremental value over competitors. Policy once stated requires alignment with the real world to ensure relevance; thus periodic review is critical. When regulatory restrictions impose process change like SOX or PCI-DSS, HIPAA, the enterprise has limited choice but to comply. Some industries are more regulated than others; some companies pride themselves on their GRC frameworks, the rest follow the path of least resistance.

So what are the strategies the CIO can adopt to ensure that s/he does not get beaten up at every audit ? CIOs should partner with their Internal Audit functions to work with each functional head and process owner to review and validate not just the process, but also the management of exceptions. If Internal Audit is unable to provide the necessary attention, seek external help; but do not ignore it. S/he should create clear accountability and transparency of every task across the cross-functional teams involved in the execution. It is important to note that people are the weakest link of any process discipline. Internal process champions or BPM experts are invaluable in the quest towards excellence.

Compliance is non-negotiable; our shareholders and regulators expect every part of the enterprise to conform to the laid down policies and principles. Good corporate governance expects no exceptions; despite all the controls we still come across black swans that disrupt the equilibrium and raise the difficulty level. Unfortunately the enterprise CXOs and the CIO have no choice but to run faster to stay in the same place.