CIO think-tank: How IT expectations have changed

Even in Kananaskis Village, Alta., they’re debating whether IT matters.

This week RIS, a Toronto-based applications support and maintenance firm, is hosting an invitation-only retreat with IT professionals from Canadian Tire, ATB Financial, TransCanada Pipelines and many others. This year’s featured guest is Nicholas Carr, the Harvard Business Review editor whose 2003 essay on IT’s role in the enterprise stirred up considerable controversy.

Besides his keynote duties, Carr was asked to moderate a panel discussion on CIO expectations, which he said offered an interesting comparison with what board of director-type executives had told the conference earlier.

“There was a lot of commonality between them but a difference in focus,” he said. “What came out of it is that the CIO is playing a board role and in fact an important one in providing a unique perspective to the board.”

RIS corralled several CIOs immediately following the panel discussion in a boardroom, where they fielded questions about their place in the enterprise from by telephone. Describe the kind of expectations that were set for you when you started your job, and how they have changed over time.

Alan Borak, CIO, Canadian Pacific Railway, Calgary: I came into this job about nine months before Y2K, so I had very clear expectations, and that was survival. It was interesting. In hindsight, it did give me something very singular to focus on, and gave me time to get grounded on that. Having got through that, you can step back and try and understand really what does the business need from IT and where can we provide the most leverage.

I would say it takes probably a couple of years, realistically, in the job before you can start to be dangerous. You need to develop the relationships, the credibility with the people who will be sponsoring the kind of change initiatives you want to go with. A lot of my time in those early days was just spent on building relationships.

Mike Finlayson, CIO, Toyota Canada, Toronto: I think when I started five years ago, IS wasn’t credible from an operational excellence perspective. The projects weren’t always on time or on budget. The help desk wasn’t able to offer as much help as everyone was expecting. Expectations and what we were able to execute were not in harmony. My role has altered over time from focusing on getting expectations managed and service levels up also to relationship management and advancing us as partners, rather than IS and business.

Stephen Pownall, Global CIO, Pilkington PLC, St. Helens, U.K.: Very similar to Mike, I started my role 11 years ago, but at that time I came in to almost be a thought leader for IT: to develop standards, processes, get the department really on a functional level as opposed to anything else. That’s changed quite a bit since those times to actually driving business change, using IS to drive the business strategy.

ITB: It’s possible for CIOs like yourselves to understand the business needs, but CEOs or the board might not understand technology very well. How would you evaluate their ability to properly articulate their expectations?

Mike Finlayson: I don’t think we’re really here to advise the CEO what piece of technology he should be using, like whether it’s a BlackBerry or a mobile phone. It’s really to try and help him improve his business. And IT is just one of the tools to do that.

Alan Borak: I think it was Steve who made the observation earlier today if you have to go ask him what is is you should be doing, you’re probably on your way out the door. (laughs)

ITB: The CEO or the board  might set expectations at the top, but to what extent do line of business departments and actual customers influence your priorities?

Mike Finlayson: We are highly influenced by what business is actually doing. In fact, I don’t want to use the word “influence.” I would much rather use the word “align.” It is so important now for IT and business to be marching down the same path that “influence” implies we are not in harmony. Clearly my role is to ensure that that alignment is there and that we are moving with speed.

Alan Borak: One of the things that I did when I first arrived or shortly thereafter was get rid of what we called the IT strategy. Because, I mean, it’s just the antithesis of what you want to do. You want each department to have a plan, and for management to insist each department have embedded in that business plan what technology they need or business process they need to make that plan successful. There’s no binder that sits on a shelf called “The IT Plan.” It has to be embedded in the business plan.

ITB: Research firms like Gartner say most IT spending goes towards day-to-day operations and less than 10 per cent on innovation. Is that true in your case, and if so how are your organizations supporting you towards innovating with IT?

Stephen Pownall: Certainly the majority of my budget is still spent on maintenance and operations and keeping things running. It was brought out earlier in the conference that the total cost of that actually comes down every year. As things consolidate, as things standardize, you’re able to say, “I’ve reduced costs every year,” without having to hurt yourself to do so, because it is moving that way. But still the majority goes towards keeping things running.

Mike Finlayson: I concur. The bulk of my IT budget is still on keeping the lights on and everything up and running and  moving ahead on small areas. Innovation is coming through the major initiatives of the organizations. We don’t innovate as IS alone particularly often. That’s one of the rarer things. We want to innovate with business. So the idea is to go through a process of reengineering, reevaluating the way we do our business, and then coming up with the optimal IS answers for that.

Alan Borak: One thing I observed – and it came up in the panel discussion – the cycles of change in the organization are getting much quicker. As you go through each of the cycles it often brings in new technology or IT to the company, but we can’t get the stuff out the back end fast enough. You’re dealing with this ever-growing mass of technology you have to maintain that you have to make sure doesn’t chew up more and more of your budget. It’s kind of a viscous circle that’s very difficult to get out of. 

ITB: You’re talking a lot about whether or not IT matters at this conference. What about what are being called Web 2.0 technologies. Do they matter?

Mike Finlayson: That’s a technology question, and as you can hear from some of my earlier answers, unless there’s clear business value, the issue does not come up. It’s up to me and my staff to clearly be able to establish the value of Web 2.0 and how it may be applied to advance our business value, but if I don’t have that story ready, business certainly is not asking.

Stephen Pownall: Technology never rears its head. Unless it’s some guy on the shop floor that wants to engage you on the latest and greatest piece of technology.

Comment: [email protected]

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