12:38 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin

The Observer: The Many Roles Of A CIO

Add seductress and supplicant to the business roles such as IT strategist that a CIO must take on to be successful, says Lou Bertin.

This one has a little bit of everything that makes for a good potboiler: intrigue, deception, seduction, tons of money at stake, selfless heroes and heroines, nasty foes who'll stop at nothing, including occasional sabotage, to have their way, and a lovely little moral at the end.

No, it's not a from-beyond-the-grave installment of the sort of thing Fletcher Knebel and Allen Drury used to do so well, it's InformationWeek's 25th Special Anniversary Report, with a few from-the-trenches assessments from you, our readers.

Most particularly, it's about the diagnoses, prescriptions, and prognoses offered so eloquently by Dr. James I. Cash and Dr. Keri E. Pearlson in a companion article "The Future CIO: Key Recommendations" to their insightful essay, "The Future CIO" and how the CIOs of my acquaintance are coping with life as Cash and Pearlson assess it and how those CIOs will be forced in some cases to contort themselves to conform to the authors' recommendations.

Those of you who read these scribblings regularly know that there's no way that I'm in a position to advise readers with anything approaching the status of the good Drs. Cash and Pearlson (besides, my friend Jim has me by about 10 inches and at least, er, a few pounds), so I won't even try. What I can do is pass along what your peers have been telling me about the state of the state, the realities of the job and the utter impossibility for some CIOs to ever structure their jobs so that their personal performance will conform to the impeccable model Cash and Pearlson offer.

Per Cash and Pearlson: "CIOs see themselves playing five primary roles: business strategist, IT strategist, IT functional leader, technology advocate and change agent." Amen and amen. If anything, Cash and Pearlson may have overlooked some of the other roles played by CIOs, those being--according to recent observations offered my way--seductress, spy, supplicant, and, occasionally, sycophant.

As for the seductress role, consider the recent musing of the mild-mannered CIO of a great metropolis. "There are times when I literally have to entice people to give things a try and once they get that first taste, they're hooked," she said. "I have to try to get them into the web before they'll commit. Sometimes, that means I have to turn off their existing services before they'll even pay attention, but I've learned that I have to lure them before I can get them to pay attention."

For a former state CIO, spying and stealth proved to be invaluable career-enhancing attributes as he strove to hew to Cash and Pearlson's imperative to establish "the right balance between fostering organizational change and exploiting IT's potential, on the one hand, and ensuring the discipline to produce reliable, bulletproof systems and infrastructure, on the other."

"I had to be sneaky," the former CIO admitted. "I had to have the tentacles out to get early intelligence on what were going to be the hot-button issues and I had to learn to, let's call it 'insinuate,' things into programs. I may not always have been explicit in terms of what was being done, but as long as the results were there, the sneakiness worked."

Supplicancy is, it appears, a requirement that simply won't be eradicated. Even with the spectre of Sarbanes-Oxley and the prospect of CIO standing for "CEO Incarceration Ordered," funding remains an inevitable source of friction. Yes, spending in general is up. And no, spending in general isn't nearly sufficient to achieve the goals Cash and Pearlson detail.

To be sure, the prescriptions Cash and Pearlson offer, if embraced by the uppermost levels of management, would go a long way toward alleviating the need for out-and-out begging on the part of IT organizations, but a certain amount of on-one's-knees pleading is inevitably going to come with the territory for CIOs anywhere.

One small ray of hope: a CIO's recent admission that "we're getting more of a hearing now than we did in the past. The 'Sarbox' scare stories have helped, but not as much as I'd like. The good news is that we're full partners at the table, the bad news is that it's because of fear of bad publicity, much more so than bad performance, just like Y2K."

To the last point of the CIO-As-Sychophant, we're dealing here with human nature, the very thing even Cash and Pearlson can't counter, no matter how persuasive their arguments and how impeccable their insights.

Consider the long-suffering CIO at a Southern California transportation-supplies company. After much arguing, he got his privately held employer to invest in business-intelligence tools on a pilot basis for the same reasons that any organization invests in business-intelligence--insight on internal performance and shifting customer needs, real-time income and operational snapshots, the usual litany.

I'll let him pick up the narrative. "So we get the managers together, they gave me the filters they wanted and the executives gave me what they wanted their dashboards to look like. We were set. But there was one thing I overlooked. Senior management not only wanted their dashboards to look a certain way, they wanted the dashboards to tell them certain things. Things like 'everything is going great.' That, I couldn't make happen. It was an expensive pilot and guess who got the blame."

If Cash and Pearlson have a cure for that kind of management, I've got a publisher for them.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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