The chief information officers (CIOs) and IT management teams of the past were assigned a budget and then expected to execute necessary operations based on that budget alone. This was a situation that required the IT department to row, so to speak, after the corporate ship. Today, successful companies, including those in the midsize market space, have incorporated the CIO and IT management team into the corporate strategy team. Their seat at the business decision maker’s table ensures that the only goal is to make all business teams successful. How do they accomplish this? According to an Economist Intelligence Unit report, “The CIO’s responsibility is still to show other senior decision-makers the ‘art of the possible’ when determining how emerging technology can affect their businesses.”
The Art of the Possible
Interestingly, the Economist report notes that the interviewed CIOs believe that only 35 percent of the senior executives with whom they engage have a strong understanding of the technology needs of their organizations and that only 40 percent of their senior colleagues enjoy a high level of technological literacy. What does this mean for IT professionals? They need to be prepared to translate for and to educate their colleagues, not only about technology, but also about the business benefits of technology. Technological advances, such as in cloud computing, virtualization, security and mobile, are all key components in the business-to-customer engagement, and all of these areas are moving forward at breakneck speed.
The seat at the strategy table will go a long way toward addressing the historic perception of the midsize company’s CIO as more of a tactical than a strategic player. Tim Theriault, CIO of Walgreens, provides sage advice for any IT professional — not just a CIO — in the Economist report: “There is a new way of doing things in which you achieve higher revenue or lower cost or better loyalty or all of them at the same time. The good CIOs I talk to can speak directly to their strategy, what they are doing in business terms.”
Strategic IT a Business Imperative
The IT presence at the business strategy table also requires all parties to remember that the sharing of knowledge is a good thing. In his article at InformationWeek, Peter Waterhouse says, “The advent of technologies like mobile and social computing has made sharing not only feasible, but profitable, too.” Instinctively, professionals know the best solution may come from the most unlikely source. Sharing of data and information across the vertical silos within a company raises the odds of discovery of those unexpected solutions. The leadership strategy table is where the company’s future direction is discussed and where the CIO gains insight into the direction being taken by the other chief x officers (CxOs) of the company. The CIO has the opportunity to educate the CxO strategic leadership team about the capabilities of the IT department. When discussing strategic future direction, the CIO’s ability to articulate what falls within the realm of the immediately possible with available resources and what may require building or acquiring a new capability for the IT team is invaluable to calculating operational expense forecasts.
In the course of these strategic discussions, the decision is often made to proceed with the acquisition of some new capability. The CIO ascertains whether the technological implementation is achievable in house or requires a managed service provider (MSP). Building one’s own capabilities in a rapidly changing technological environment is no small feat, especially for small to medium businesses (SMBs). New technologies may require either staff or contract personnel augmentation, including a means of ensuring that these new arrivals come with the requisite expertise.
In addition, the availability of individuals with unique skill sets may be limited. When evaluating the MSP option, comparison of capabilities across a variety of MSPs is desirable. Engagement of an MSP will frequently be the most logical choice since the SMB is able to implement best-of-class solutions via emerging technologies by leveraging the expertise of an MSP in order to provide immediate benefit to the business without the long-term investment in internal resourcing.
Leadership at the most successful companies will allow the discussion to be strategic, empowering and robust. Business decisions, which include IT solutions, evolve for a common goal: Business success. Therefore, the most valuable approach for the IT professional with a seat at the company strategy table is to speak about IT solutions in business terms.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.