Meeting higher expectations
While it's important to highlight the value of infrastructure maintenance and keep-the-lights-on projects that prevent bad things from happening, today's CIOs must also recognize that the rules of the game have changed. The great CIO that Handler was asked to help fire because everything was working fine? "That was the story circa 1994," he says. "In 2000, about 70 percent of IT organizations were viewed as a necessary evil. Today, only 7 percent are seen that way, and 90 percent of senior non-IT leaders view IT as important to the business. People expect you to deliver change."
Unfortunately, not all technology leaders see themselves as change agents, he says. "Some CIOs think if they can do project delivery well they should be heralded. CEOs think, 'No, that's your job.' Being able to deliver projects is table stakes."
IT being taken for granted is "a very common problem," Curran says. "I think it comes from a lack of recognition of the two potential roles for IT. One is an internal-facing role about keeping the lights on, supporting the infrastructure and processing transactions. The second is a market-facing role to create new value around products and services."
Not understanding that second role gets IT organizations in trouble, he says. "There's a lot of confusion about roles and responsibilities, and partnering across business functions is harder. But it's how IT can bring potential value to the business."
The most successful CIOs understand both roles, and initiate customer-facing projects. "My team knows the business. We are not order-takers," Brady says. "We create new ideas and let the business know what we've come up with. We say, 'We think it will make a difference, what do you think?' We don't wait for them to come to us."
That approach made a huge difference to NextGear's fortunes when the economic downturn hit in 2008. IT had recently launched predictive analytics for its loan portfolio, and the analysis turned up a troubling trend: Car dealers who borrowed from the company were keeping inventory in their lots longer and paying back loans more slowly than they had in the past. After discovering that, NextGear determined that it could help keep its borrowers in business (and paying their loans) by encouraging them to sell hard-to-move cars at auction and avoid being overstocked. "We were able to spot warning trends six months earlier than our competitors," Brady says.
It all goes along with the philosophy of continuous improvement, she adds. "Just because a process is working well doesn't mean you should be happy with it."
Besides, Broadway notes, if you content yourself with keeping things running smoothly, you risk taking yourself out of the top management loop. "You're not actively applying your acumen to the business problems of the day, so you're not part of the conversation," he says. "And you should always be part of the conversation -- whether it's about IT or not."
Zetlin is a technology writer and co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business And Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other And Why They Need Each Other to Survive. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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