Monday, June 22, 2015

New CIO dilemma: Build a foundation or create quick wins ?

He was excited when he joined the new company which had reached out to him to help them in their growth and transformation agenda. The company had struggled to grow in recent times; profitability pressures for a longish time drove the management to cost cutting and product portfolio rationalization. Their IT did what it was built for, automation of now disjointed processes with limited business benefit. They lived in dark ages of IT for more than a decade relegating the company to distant memory as one who could have achieved greatness.

Change of guard within the promoters resulted in induction of fresh talent from lateral and unconnected industries, all of them with some level of credibility. A quarter back he had taken the role of their first CIO followed by a few other CXOs who came in later. They were expected to revive the sagging fortunes of the company with magic from their collective experience. The CIO was a veteran of more than a score years behind him; having evolved with the changing technology landscape, he had the necessary credentials for the role.

In the first month into the new enterprise, he met with all the stakeholders, understood the challenges and opportunities in front of him, conducted a SWOT of his team; essentially creating a map of the terrain he had entered. He welcomed inputs and engaged to assess how they could help create quick wins. As it happens with any new role, this also brought opportunities for the partner ecosystem who reached out to the CIO seeking to understand his agenda and direction, willing to help with technology solutions and strategic inputs.

Lack of IT leadership had led to no real investments in IT over the years creating disparate systems all over; the situation was such that wherever you looked there was a need for attention. The new CXOs wanted to see quick wins within their functions; the IT team was constrained by their skills to deliver. The CIO had to build a team, find some tactical wins, architect the future IT landscape and keep business as usual running. The grass that appeared green from the outside, suddenly the opportunity started looking like a problem.

Over the next few months he attempted to understand ground realities by visiting the manufacturing plants, spending time with sales and marketing, hobnobbing with the supply chain team, and talking to various solution providers. They had lost market leadership having lost ground to global players with large marketing budgets. Competition had deployed solutions ages back and were in the process of moving to the next level of maturity. It took time for the promoters to react to market forces that led to the decline.

All initiatives together would keep him busy for the next three years. His long experience across a few companies had not prepared him for the multi-tasking and agility requirements of creating a transformation agenda. To IT mature enterprises, incremental innovation offers fair return; disruption is rare, driven by shifts in industry, or technology obsolescence, or possibilities created by new technology. His staid progress posed a challenge for him as well as the company; eventually he decided to invest in the foundation against quick wins.

If the situation is opened to discussion and debate, there is enough justification for one direction over the other. The camp shall stay divided into three parts: the first advocating quick wins over long-term to build credibility and then embark on the longer journey; the second reinforcing the need to build a foundation before creating peripheral systems to ensure robust processes support the business; and finally the proponents of doing both simultaneously being the third group. The luxury of choice does not exist in a hypercompetitive world.

Quick wins come with an element of risk which people take based on past experience; unfortunately the business world does tolerate failure irrespective of the cliché “Fail faster”. Most take a conservative approach and attempt to walk “baby steps” towards progress; they reap what they sow. Walking the tightrope and crafting tactical strategies which are balanced with long-term goals and objectives requires confidence and a bit of risk with commensurate rewards. It is the best possible option and the lesser travelled path !

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