Putting ’I’ back in ’CIO’

Nice sound bite, but does the spirit make sense?

On a few occasions recently I have heard presenters on stage remind their audience of the fact that the ’I’ in ’CIO’ stands for ’Information’, the premise being that we all appear to have forgotten this over the years with a shift in focus to technology. The line is usually put forward following the clich ’information explosion’ discussion, and the message is that CIO’s need to pay more attention to dealing with the ’information problem’.

On first consideration, this sounds like a reasonable thing to say. Most business information in the majority organisations is now stored electronically, which means IT is implicitly involved in creating, managing and exploiting it – ergo the person with ultimate responsibility for IT systems must also be responsible for the information held within them.

It is then a short logical step to argue that the CIO is the one who needs to sort out all of the issues around fragmentation, quality, consistency, completeness, retention and retrieval of information that cause so many challenges for business users on a daily basis. And if you really wanted to take a partisan view, you could also argue that a big contributing factor to us ending up where we are today has been the piecemeal and uncoordinated way in which IT systems have been implemented and accumulated over the years, which is obviously down to the CIO and his or her predecessors.

But how valid and helpful is this way of thinking? Well let’s consider things in a little more of a balanced and holistic way for minute.

Two notions that are often confused are ’stewardship’ and ’ownership’. A steward is responsible for looking after what they are given to take care of, but obviously doesn’t have control over the initial state they receive it in nor what happens when the owner takes control back from time to time. If someone gives you a car to look after that has been neglected, for example, you can do what you can to patch it up within your means and maintain it thereafter, but can’t keep it in good condition if the owner keeps taking it for a drive and abusing it.

And so it is with information. The CIO is in effect the chief steward, but it’s business management that ultimately owns and controls the organisation’s information. The CIO and their team can advise that it would be best if consistent coding schemes for products, customers, and so on were used across divisions, or that an existing system should be extended to deal with a new emerging need rather than a new one implemented, but they cannot force such things to occur. They can also recommend discipline and policy in relation to the way information is generated, manipulated and stored using desktop and workgroup tools, but if a politically strong business unit decides it will do its own thing with Microsoft Office and SharePoint, they can’t dictate otherwise.

There is then the reality of authority, funding, and resourcing limitations. Most senior IT professionals we speak with are aware of the need for proactive steps to deal with the issues we have been discussing through implementing some kind of over-arching information strategy and supporting IT framework. Being the stewards rather than the owners of the data, however, they cannot go it alone, and finding people within the business to step up and help take some of the hard decisions around information rationalisation, consolidation, retention, and so on is very difficult. Securing budget and resource to implement horizontal capability or infrastructure to start breaking down some of the silos and boundaries in practical terms is also hard when information related work is typically funded as part of discrete projects at an individual system or function level.

So if that’s the problem, what’s the solution?

Well unfortunately there are no easy answers or magic bullets. In fact, the truth is that in a medium or large business environment it probably isn’t even possible to scope a single project to put everything right that would be feasible to execute, no matter how much funding was available.

The way forward begins with getting senior business management to acknowledge the challenges and the ongoing consequences of not addressing them in a robust and systematic manner. The thorny question of ownership, with all of the political issues and power plays, then needs to be dealt with – and by ownership, we don’t just mean of the various information types and stores, but of the over arching challenge of driving cross process, cross function and cross department improvement activity.

In practical terms, this typically boils down to setting a direction or creating a programme, with a range of goals that map onto the short, medium and long term objectives of the business. I quite like the IBM term for this, ’Information Agenda’, though other vendors and consulting firms put forward the same idea using different language. Individual projects can then be spun out from this over-arching programme with specific deliverables, picking off some of the hotspots in terms of business pain and/or opportunity to ensure that tangible returns on investments are realised before patience runs out and the plug gets pulled – which is the big danger if a more ’boil the ocean’ approach is taken.

In some organisations, imperatives that are often though of as a chore, such as those associated with regulatory compliance or the integration of a newly acquired company, can actually be a blessing in disguise in the context we have been discussing by providing further impetus to a broader information improvement initiative. Such activity is often dependent on integrating, consolidating and/or rationalising information structures and sources, and if this is done in the right way, the work involved can be reused to help optimise more general business decision making and management. Compliance, merger and acquisition activity can also act as catalysts in the all-important breaking down of boundaries, not just between IT and the business, but between departments and groups within the business itself.

However the improvement initiative comes about and is justified, though, it only really stands a chance of success if there is executive level ownership within the business, and both buy in and participation from key business stakeholders. Of course IT professionals have a critical role to play too, but if anyone tries to delegate ownership of the programme to the IT department, then this must be resisted at all costs, as there is no way IT can pull off the execution of a major programme when, as we said before, it doesn’t have the necessary ownership or authority to call the shots when required. Unfortunately, no amount of talk about putting the ’I’ back in ’CIO’ will change this.

The bottom line is that an organisation’s information belongs to senior business management, and any improvement initiatives associated with it are business change programmes.

Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.