The return of the CIO

Chief information officers have fallen out of grace in the past few years. But with technology picking up pace the time is now right for CIOs to once again find their voice in the board room.

Once viewed as the trendy, new kid on the block with unlimited potential, the role of the CIO has become stagnant over the past few years. As the cost of IT continues to rise and the connection between IT maintenance and revenue streams grow more divergent, CIOs are finding that their voice in the boardroom is losing its impact, effectively marginalising the position. As a result, running IT operations is hardly a stepping stone to the CEO’s chair at the head of the table.
 
According to CIO Magazine (2011), only 10 per cent of CIOs at Fortune 500 companies rise to the next level, the CIO is the least appreciated of the CXO roles and that a massive 23 per cent are eventually fired.
 
The way to win over perception is to attach yourself to revenue-generating projects, relying on real and measurable data that shows obvious operational benefits to the organisation. Look at web impressions for the new e-commerce site or improving time-to-market timelines to show how IT drives operational efficiencies. The problem is that many of these projects are still run through discrete business units such as a web group, product group or digital group under the marketing or operations departments - rather than under your purview in the IT department.
 
This lack of ownership over revenue-generating initiatives forces many IT organisations to focus most of their time and resources on operations - the effort to maintain current availability and status.
 
Activities such as patch management, asset management, lifecycle management, anti-virus, datacentre architecture, network optimisation, load balancing, redundancy, business continuity planning and administrative password resets are completed efficiently by your staff but are largely done in the background without the user aware.
 
On the flip side, tasks that are responsive in nature are more visible, putting your team’s “failures” directly in front of users. You’ve heard the expression “The best IT administrator is the one you never see.” To users, the worst IT administrator is the one always interrupting their work to upgrade a new OS or reconfigure a hard drive. They’re the ones who are perceived as a disruption to operations, inhibiting “real” work getting done.
 
Tasks like incident response, fixing application outages, handling virus outbreaks, natural disasters, connectivity outages, performance problems, software installations and setting up new devices just serve to remind users that IT really doesn’t have a handle on infrastructure.
 
Whether you like it or not, and whether it’s fair, CIOs are being judged on something as mundane as the corporate email system or how well they upgrade everyone to Windows 7.
 
And if that’s the case, why do they deserve more budget, and why should the CIO have a say in the boardroom?
 
How Do We Shift the Balance?

Fortunately, there is a way to reverse the perception of IT as an operational entity, and institute a IT systems management strategy that shows your executives that you are working in line with the organisation’s mission and goals. The first is to make proactive tasks more visible to users and the reactive less visible. CIOs can work on more strategic projects by creating their own opportunities to enable efficiencies and drive revenue.

Make the proactive visible

CIOs can protect the IT brand by increasing visibility of operational metrics and success. Were you able to maintain five-nines availability of your organisation’s CRM application last quarter?
 
Measure that and tell people. Were you able to improve network performance by making a few architecture changes? Shout the news from the mountaintop. People will only know the great work your team is doing if you tell them. So do it. Don’t be shy. It is imperative that you employ a robust reporting mechanism that gives you the raw data necessary to measure the success of your team. A holistic IT systems management solution should give you the visibility into the status of your systems to capture this information. It should also allow you to generate intuitive, easy-to-read reports that even the CFO can understand.
 
Use the mountains of management data available to you to establish baselines on
operational costs and publically publish how you are bringing them down. But don’t stop there.
 
Create initiatives that create measurable, visible wins in everyday business and tie productivity measurements and resolution metrics to improved productivity. Make soft assumptions on how that translates into business dollars. No one will fault you for helping them connect the dots.

Make the reactive invisible

Automation is the hallmark of a reliable, cost-efficient IT systems management strategy.
 
The ability to eliminate repetitive, manual tasks makes your administrators and technicians more efficient and enables them to focus on more strategic projects. If something breaks, your IT systems management solution should have a mechanism in place that automatically resolves the issue or elevates it to a technician. Use alerts and take advantage of scripting. Thresholds can be set to trigger automatic responses to events, ensuring systems rarely go down and workload is shared across multiple systems.
 
To users, this should be invisible, conducted in the background without anyone knowing. Strive to make the proactive visible and the reactive invisible.
 
Give users a stake in making IT work

The promise of technology is that it makes users’ lives easier. Sometimes it’s hard for users to remember that - especially if IT creates additional steps or bureaucracy in their daily lives.
 
Task your staff with making IT work for users by creating initiatives that streamline processes.
 
Does the warehouse staff have to manually input shipping orders in the CRM application?
 
Work with them to automate the process. Does it typically take four people and a full day to sign off on a work order? Build an automated system that speeds up the workflow.
 
Transparency and communication also empowers users, telling them that IT cares about fixing their problems in a timely and non-disruptive manner. Inform people when the network is scheduled for maintenance or if email goes down. Communicate the issue to them in a coherent manner - never IT speak - and give them a timeline of when it will be fixed. Instead of complaining, they’ll likely thank you for the heads up.
 
Productive users are happy users. It’s time you got them on your side.

Create your own opportunities

The efficiencies you’ve created through the IT organisation are going to save the company a lot of money. But don’t give it back. Keep it and reallocate it to new projects that you can wholly own.
 
Create a fund that you can dig into that allows you to reinvest in particular strategic projects that are otherwise not being funded. Don’t wait for the CFO to give you a hand out or take away your budget. Use the money you save on visible projects that create additional operational efficiencies and drive revenue. Work directly with the sales team to build a new mobile CRM application so they can access customer information from the road. Talk to the engineering team to see if you can help them build a new collaboration platform.
 
Be proactive and build relationships with other business units, so you can continue to grow the IT brand and show senior leadership that you and your team are valuable to the business.

The role of the CIO has been largely marginalised over the past several years, shifting to more of an operational rather than strategic role. Perception of IT has suffered as users and senior leadership alike see IT as a cost rather than a contributor to the bottom line. Some CIOs, however, have decided to shift IT back to a strategic role by reducing the visibility of reactive tasks while making proactive management more visible. Users are more engaged and have more of a stake
in the health of systems, thereby making them more productive and happier. The efficiencies created can go right back into the IT budget to be spent on strategic projects that create efficiencies and help drive revenue.
 
The days of IT being a second-class citizen in the boardroom are over. Being proactive, making users happy and creating your own opportunities to show value can make all the difference.
 
The CIO’s place in the boardroom is secure. Now see what you can truly accomplish.

Dermot McCann is the managing director of Kaseya