Time for CIOs to Initiate Strategic Process

Dana Isaacoff, COO, Geoff McDonald & Associates
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Dana Isaacoff, COO, Geoff McDonald & Associates

For many years, chief information officers have yearned for a “seat at the table,” a chance to participate in the strategic conversation, to hear first-hand what the organization was planning, and to contribute technical insights to the business that would help set its course. Some of us won that honor, as several industries began to leverage technological advantages. One example is auto insurance, where disruptive technologies have changed the business to include live price comparison, direct-to-consumer sales through the internet, and driver telematics. As our business-to-consumer world went mobile in a big way, CIOs were expected to convert the consumer experience – once the large-scale footprint of a big-box store – down to the 6 square inches of a smart phone screen. Finally, all eyes are now on the CIO to protect the firm from malefactors bent on electronic theft or vandalism, a catastrophe far exceeding the old-school store break-in that concerned our counterparts in Facilities Management.

Except for these and a few other areas, the widespread invitation to CIOs to influence business strategy never materialized. My bet is that there is no CIO in the world, no matter how big and complex the company, that doesn’t occasionally get a phone call which should have gone to the Help Desk. In the minds of our colleagues, our link to devices can be a barrier to real and meaningful strategic work. However, as harmful as the bias of others is, we sometimes make matters worse by relegating ourselves to the ghetto of IT support. Often without thinking about it, we throw away any chance to influence our organizations whenever a CIO or IT Director, not directly invited to craft or support strategy, says “that initiative has nothing to do with me.”  

An old Zen kōan tells the story of a small gosling kept in a bottle. After a while, the bird had grown too big and couldn’t get out. Zen students pondered how to release the goose without breaking the bottle. A little girl immediately saw the futility of this approach. Feeling compassion for the fictional goose, her solution was very simple: break the bottle and get let the bird go.

We are all the goose in some way and the bottle is one or another constraint imposed by convention, habit, organization or inhibition. To release their inner strategists, CIOs have to break the bottle and act as if they always have had enterprise-wide responsibilities. Every time a company announces a new product, opens a new office, starts a new project, or changes direction, the CIO should reflect, “What can I do to support that effort? What part of my world will make that a success?”

For example, after hearing about several recurring problems at our law firm that had not been solved through traditional management means (i.e., lawyers have compliance issues) a colleague and I created the “Practice Efficiency Program (PEP).” PEP used a multi-pronged technology approach to improve time capture for electronic billing, mine historic data for accurately pricing Alternative Fee Arrangements, create model documents, and improve client-attorney interaction. If the problems weren’t directly affecting revenue or cost we did not include it in our program. You can’t get more strategic than that. No one asked us to “sit at the table;” we just walked in and sat down anyway.

I know what you are thinking: it’s a bold stance but in reality, not so easy to do. You are right. You need a few things to make this work: supportive management and buy-in, and some resources.

You also need Nerve

To build support and buy-in, start with your IT steering committee. Those committees were created for one reason: no one in the company believed that technical people understood the business (the fancy term for that was “non-alignment”). Prove them wrong. Stop talking about hyper-converged infrastructure or virtualized network functions and start talking to the committee in the language of their business. To improve timekeeper billing at our firm, we didn’t discuss “accelerating coding” and “proprietary capture technology,” we talked about “dropping and dragging time into the accounting system.” It is an important distinction: one sounds like techno-speak, the other sounds like a revenue source. It resonated.

“For the biggest bang, the first place to look for inexpensive approaches to supporting strategic initiatives is process improvement”

Getting resources is about building the business case. For PEP, we looked at how much potential lost revenue could be recovered by using an automated system. We stood to gain $4.2 million for a $20,000 investment. That got people’s attention. But every return on investment won’t be so clear cut and every expense won’t be so low.

For the biggest bang, the first place to look for inexpensive approaches to supporting strategic initiatives is process improvement. Few business leaders are more adept at process mapping than CIOs who are professional systems thinkers; this is a huge opportunity to add the kind of value that only a CIO can bring. In process mapping, you are likely to discover two very important things. First, it will become clear that what people think is happening in their organization and what is really happening are two different things. In many cases, people will be describing their processes out loud for the very first time ever. Amazing things can be discovered in this way. Second, you will find where processes break down during hand offs or when data moves from paper to electronic. For example, we found numerous examples of electronic forms being printed and rescanned as PDFs—totally wasted effort—and this helped us define training initiatives that speeded and simplified strategic processes.

The “nerve” it takes for a CIO to barge into the strategic process is non-trivial. Perhaps the best way to undertake this is by making offers to your colleagues; you might find that they are grateful for the help. Upon arriving at a new firm, I was surprised to find the cash disbursement process—a very key business process—to be paper-based and entirely manual. The finance director told me that software to manage the system had proved too expensive and not quite right for the needs of the firm. Our collaboration resulted in a low-cost, internally developed workflow application. Over time, we even made it mobile so that cash disbursements could be approved via smartphone.

Like Spider Man, I urge you always to be on the prowl for ways your special CIO “spidey sense” can influence your business. Get in the middle of the conversation—whether invited or not—build alliances, look for areas you can impact, and make offers to your colleagues. Break the bottle and spread your wings. 

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