How to join CIOs at decision-making table

They were just bringing in the T1 lines at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce when Robert Meagher was working there more than 10 years ago. As a part of the team involved in network communications and computer operations, Meagher was immersed in the day-to-day operations that occupy most IT manager’s

time. Now, he says, those priorities have to change.

Meagher is the practice leader of IT/Net, an Ottawa-based consulting firm that focuses on the more broad spectrum of “”information management,”” which often includes IT but extends to much more. In fact, Meagher is making the rounds to industry associations (like the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Information Processing Society) to tell others to broaden their horizons. He told the CIPS audience that IT people are largely being left out of key corporate decisions, spending most of their time on the bricks and mortar of technology and application infrastructure. Meagher says IT staff should instead look at what he calls “”infostructure,”” which can include everything from technology solutions, policy/procedures, common vocabularies, business rules, through to the selection of the technologies. In a paper on IT/Net’s Web site, he outlines an Information Management Framework to help them get there.

Meagher spoke Thursday with Computing Canada to explain why IT people are still on the outside, looking in.

Computing Canada: Your speech at the CIPS meeting seems to go against the grain of what we’ve been hearing about the industry for a while now. I thought CIOs were a big part of the decision-making process in many companies.

Robert Meagher: For those who are at the CIO level, great. But when I was out there at CIPS, it would have been wonderful if the room would have been filled with CIOs, but the audience that I was speaking to at CIPS and the audience on what I affectionately refer to as my “”world tour”” are not CIOs. They’re the managers of the departments. If you want to get to the CIO path in your career, these are the things you have to consider.

CC: Is there any particular reason why you want to offer this advice to people who were in the sort of position you were in before?

RM: I have very big concern, and that’s that if we don’t soon begin to consider these other pieces of the IM building blocks, we’re going to lose our relevancy–if we haven’t already. We’re too focused on this one piece (of the business). It’s not that it’s not important; it’s not that it’s not essential. All of them are essential. The point is, we’re missing out on the bigger picture. We’re getting bogged down in those operational issues. We need to step back, we need to begin thinking more strategically, align ourselves more with the corporate strategic goals and objectives.

CC: Isn’t it inevitable that IT focus on operational issues when budgets are so tight?

RM: My sense is that within the last five years there’s been an increased focus on strategic thinking as holistic management. We all get caught in that muddle of our everyday lives. More and more as global competition and other strategic drivers like e-business and — not to jump on the bandwagon — Sept. 11 are causing us to step back. Any business — and I don’t care if it’s federal government or private sector — needs to focused on two things: market cap and market gap. Market cap is market capitalization: what’s the revenue potential in the market and what’s the gap? Who are the competitors, what percentage of the market do they have? That’ s all you need to be concerned with, because the market is typically only so big. If you’re not growing, that means one of your competitors is, and squeezing you out of the market.

CC: But is there not a sense that those kind of high-level strategies should be left up to the CIOs, since they’re in a senior position?

RM: They have to lead it, but certainly when I’m called in to help an organization develop an IM/IT strategy, I do not limit the development or those involved in the development to the top level. Typically part of the engagement will be speaking to those people. They should have vision of where they want to go in the future, but you need to involve operational people. We need to augment our skill sets in order to bring more value to that decision-making table and influence those decision-makers. They may be the CIO or the CEO, obviously, if in fact that CIO is part of the decision-making council.

CC: You discuss the need to implement an Information Management Framework. Can you provide an overview of the framework?

RM: There are 12 block, six core blocks and six supporting processes. The six core blocks are incremental staged steps — a methodology, if you will — of how to go from A to Z in implementing an IT/IM regime. It starts from strategy and vision and goes all the way to maintenance.

CC: Are there any vertical industries that are already adopting this approach?

RM: The health-care industry. The financial industry and the banking industry, they’re IM/IT tends to focus heavily on structured data and the data processing. That’s the kind of environment I came from, with CIBC, one of the major banks. They’re increasingly getting into the Web content management — I mean, look at the way that they deliver their services. They’re very much Web-driven. There’s also the insurance industry, pharmaceutical.

CC: Is part of the problem that IT is not looking at it as “”infostructure”” but as simply “”infrastructure?””

RM: You raise an interesting point, and a point that has been drawn out over past decade as what some have seen as a constant struggle between the IT and informatics or the IM or as some have coined them, the records management folks. Getting the two sides to the table — increasingly I’m finding more cooperation between the two camps. You’re finding the realization that one cannot exist without the other. I recently worked with a client who expressed that IT is the foundation upon which the IM is delivered. I think that’s certainly a view I could go with. The technology is the vehicle, the IM is the “”how.””

CC: We certainly seem to be at an interesting time where IT people seem to be sort of testing their limits in terms of their role in the organization. In a lot of customer relationship management projects, certainly that kind of collaboration has to happen. In that case, might some of this framework you’re talking about happen sort of organically?

RM: I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s going to happen organically, because you have to be conscious of what these building blocks are. I don’t think it will naturally fall out, especially with the processes. What makes them complicated is that with the processes there is no distinct beginning or end to them. And what I mean is the change management, the business transformation, the project management, the risk management or the performance management.

CC: If one is to adopt this sort of an outlook, what has to be done so that when new IT staff are hired they understand their role may be more than what they were taught in IT school?

RM: It has to made clear to them what is the strategy, what is the vision of that organization. And part of that strategy and vision has to include what the skill sets they’re looking after, what’s going to be that continual resourcing plan? How do we keep those people involved in the process?

CC: Will this methodology flourish or be challenged within organizations that are increasingly outsourcing a lot of their IT functions?

RM: Time will tell, and I’m not trying to dodge the question. My sense is that about five years ago, there was a heavy, heavy emphasis on outsourcing the IT function. My sense is that it’s now coming back in-house. Within the past couple of years I’ve worked with a private sector organization. They were an engineering consulting firm. When I started the project, they had outsourced their IT project. Before I left — and it was only in nine months — they were talking about bringing it back in.

CC: That’s interesting. I suppose a lot of people don’t make a lot of noise about it when they decide to stop outsourcing, or at least reduce it.

RM: And why would they? They wouldn’t want to draw attention to the fact that maybe they made the wrong decision. And I’m not saying that in all cases it was a poor decision.

CC: What would you say to somebody working in IT in terms of getting started on this kind of a framework?

RM: The first step is recognizing where they need to augment their skill sets to be able to contribute to the goal of the framework. Take a look at the framework: what skills do I need to augment my current skill set in order to give me the credibility or that background to be able the decision makers?

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