Here’s a riddle: What is it that almost every organization believes it needs, many organizations have, and few organizations use? The answer is an IT strategy.
CEOs and CFOs task new CIOs and old CIOs alike with developing an IT strategy. But despite the millions of dollars, pounds, euros, and yen spent on creating IT strategy every year, few of these strategies will be put to effective use. The IT strategy is the foundation upon which CIOs communicate the value of IT across the enterprise. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, only 18% of organizations have IT teams that communicate the value of IT effectively.
Is there a fundamental problem in today’s IT? I believe there is, and it’s this: IT decision-makers are too often focused on the wrong things.
In a recent study, Forrester examined the top priorities, topics, and terms from a variety of data sources for both business decision-makers and technology decision-makers. What we found was a very clear — and to my mind, troubling — distinction between these two groups.
Business decision-makers focus on topics like growing revenue, improving customer satisfaction, and hiring, developing, and retaining the best talent. By contrast, IT decision-makers focus on topics like improving project delivery performance, improving budget performance, and cutting IT costs.
The fact that IT decision-makers have so little focus on business outcomes is one of the main reasons IT is seen as disconnected from the rest of the business.
The only way for CEOs and CIOs to fix this is to begin to measure IT professionals more in terms of business-outcomes and less on project delivery and system uptime. In other words, we need to measure IT professionals using the same KPIs we use to measure leaders across the rest of the business. This means we must begin measuring IT’s impact on things like the change in customer satisfaction (that’s the company’s customer satisfaction and not IT’s internal “customers” as some groups like to refer to other employees in the company), or the increase in sales, or the ability to attract and retain top talent.
Regardless of what our minds conjure up when we think of airline travel, one thing we can readily observe is that while the weather, the experience of the flight crew, the mechanical condition of the aircraft, and the destination of the flight are all variables, the system of getting an aircraft from one place to another, in one piece, is extraordinarily reliable. Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines once joked that the airline business is the only place where the capital assets travel at 500 miles per hour.
Every commercial flight starts with a flight plan, a flight crew, an aircraft, and a destination. The dispatcher creates the plan based on the expected conditions for the flight, the limitations of the pilot and passengers, and the capabilities of the aircraft. Time is built into the plan to climb to cruise altitude and to descend again to reach the destination safely. How much fuel will be required is built into the plan and pumped into the tanks. Every activity is done to achieve a singular purpose: getting the aircraft and its passengers safely to the destination, and everyone involved knows where the destination is. Aviation is a study in viable systems design.
How strange it seems then, that thousands of IT projects begin every day, but more than one-third of them crash enroute. Why? I would argue that it's because there is seldom a clear destination in mind, a rational plan to get there, or a viable system approach in place to execute the plan. Most of the time, the destination and the means to get there are only vague estimates, and the elements of the strategy are rooted in hope.
As regular readers of my blog will know, I’ve been talking about moving beyond alignment for a number of years now. The fact is, too many CIOs have been able to get by on the basis of managing the technology black box — and CEOs and CFOs have been complicit in allowing these same CIOs the freedom to do what they want within tightly controlled budgets, not wanting to sully their hands with “all that technology stuff.” But those days are rapidly coming to an end. The technology genie is out of the bottle; today’s business-unit leaders are more dependent on technology than ever before, and they are also much more tech-savvy. CIOs can no longer hide behind the technology black box — it’s time to change the IT game forever. It’s time for IT to drive business results and connect all technology investments to business outcomes.
Today’s new CEOs are looking to CIOs and IT to make a direct impact on business goals from investments in technology. While every business must make technology investments to sustain operations, IT must move beyond simply keeping the lights on and connect the dots between effective growth strategies and new technology investments. This requires a different set of technology and business skills: different people, process, and technology in the IT organization. In fact, the organization is so different we now call it the business technology organization, or BT. The distinction between IT and BT is subtle but important. BT represents the fusion of the IT organization into the rest of the business. In a BT organization, the lines between IT and business units are blurred. What is important is a focus on the roles needed for effective business technology strategy execution. What’s not important are reporting lines.
After wrapping up our CIO Forum in Paris last week, I can definitely say CIOs and IT leaders care about strategy. The theme of this year's conference was "Collaboration To Co-Creation," and we included a number of sessions directed at helping IT leaders step up and influence business strategy.
A highlight of the forum was Peter Hinssen's talk on The New Normal — you can see a sample of Peter delivering an earlier version of his presentation on YouTube (http://youtu.be/s_w04xb4MqM?hd=1). And Peter's talk perfectly framed the strategic themes of the conference.
Through a number of keynote and track sessions, CIOs discussed transforming IT to have an even greater impact on business outcomes. Central to this theme was the exploration of Forrester's new BT Strategic Planning Playbook, including a workshop-style session where CIOs got to exchange experiences on moving their organizations away from being order-takers and toward strategic partners with lines of business.
It's clear from the discussions I had with many of the CIOs attending that IT leaders sense new opportunities to partner in developing effective business strategy and moving toward co-creation. But there are challenges ahead; here are a few I shared in Paris in a short session on co-creation:
Language is important. What we say and how we say it are critical. Even speaking plain English is challenging. For example, in England one might say "put the money in the boot" (probably only likely if you are a bank robber but I like the imagery so bear with me). What we might imagine is something like this
Yes, that’s right — I’m suggesting CIOs should stop working on IT strategy. The days of developing a technology strategy that aligns to business strategy need to be behind us. Today’s CIOs must focus on business strategy.
Let’s face it: Does sound business strategy even exist today without technology? Most CEOs would likely agree that, unless you are running a lemonade stand, any successful business strategy must have solid technology at its core. The challenge for today’s CEOs is that, while planning business strategy in isolation from technology is sub-optimal, it remains the most common way business leaders develop strategy. And while there have been many great books about strategy, the specific challenges facing the CIO are largely absent.
I work with a lot of CIOs and heads of strategy in Australia and the Asia Pacific area – particularly concerning the development and updating of their IT strategies. As a part of our strategy document review service, I have seen plenty of approaches to IT strategies – from “on a single page” position statements through to hugely detailed documents that outline every project that will take place over the next 5-10 years.
While it can be argued that an IT strategy can’t really be strategic at all if it is just responding to business needs and requests (isn’t that just an IT plan?), the broader question of “what, exactly is a strategy?” is rarely touched upon.
It’s the perennial issue for many CIOs and often the No. 1 challenge for new CIOs: “How do I align IT with the business?” And while this is perhaps the most important challenge for IT groups struggling with a bad reputation across the business, it’s certainly not the most important challenge for IT groups with a solid track record of success. For these teams, the challenge is how to move beyond alignment.
In the report Beyond Alignment: BT Strategic Planning, I highlight how critical it is for IT to help formulate business strategy. The research suggests that how a firm develops and manages business strategy is pivotal to the question of how IT can move beyond alignment. Unfortunately, there are a number of challenges with this:
Social technology is coming into every organization whether IT wants it or not. The adoption of social technologies to support business and customer needs has been fastest outside of IT — often with IT playing catch-up and struggling to provide value. CIOs are at a crossroads where they can either choose to lead IT toward social business maturity or sit back and watch as the rest of the organization pushes ahead, leaving IT in social business obscurity. The choice is easy, but the execution is difficult. A new report — Social Business Strategy: An IT Execution Plan — suggests CIOs should assess the organization’s current social maturity and implement a plan that positions IT to successfully support a social business strategy.
Organizations are broadly categorized as social laggards, internally mature, externally mature or enterprise mature. The approach recommended for CIOs differs based on the maturity level. For example, CIOs in organizations with strong internal maturity should focus on developing a partnership with marketing in order to extend the use of social strategy out to customers and business partners.
While very few organizations are already at the enterprise maturity level, CIOs in these organizations can take an active role in developing social business strategy by supporting the creation of a social business council and dedicating staff to support social strategy.
Many clients have suggested their PMO mission is already elevated to this level. They now focus their efforts on everything from guiding business leaders through building a business case for the investments they want to make, to guiding decision-makers through selection from the portfolio of investment proposals, to tracking benefits realization and ROI after the fact. PMOs with this kind of business-focused, strategic mission have greater business impact and are often close partners with executives leading their firm.