Why Businesses Say IT Is Not Very Innovative

Those of you who read my blogs know I write often about the human aspects of IT project failures and the lack of open discussion between technologists and their business colleagues.  Well, here comes some more evidence.

Information Week published an article entitled “Heroes Wanted,”  which is about the unfortunate lack of technological innovation at a time of great business need.  In this well-researched article which is based on responses from both IT and non-It people, we learn even more about the disturbing lack of synchronicity between the need for and delivery of technology.  Data collected showed a ‘disparity between how IT views its performance (not bad) and how non-IT pros view it (not good).’

What did they learn specifically?

IT Project Cost and Delivery Not Meeting Expectations:  2/3 (a low number in and of itself) of IT providers thought users were happy with quality, timeliness and cost, but just half of the business managers surveyed agreed.  Furthermore, more than half of the business managers still believed IT is still primarily a support or maintenance organization.  “Again and again, the data shows a disturbing gap between IT’s perception of itself as reasonably innovative and effective and non-IT’s lukewarm view.”

IT and the Business Look at the Same Situation Differently:   for every success story reported in the survey by IT, ‘there were as many cutting comments describing the IT staff — even from IT pros themselves.’  That is, despite seemingly heroic efforts by IT and no customer complaints, IT is still not seen as cutting the muster for business innovation purposes.  Indeed, IT is viewed as being a drag on innovation.  “The user perception is very low and generally this perception is ignored [italics mine] by senior IT management as not being of importance.”  How can the IT function be so cavalier about disregarding survey after survey that business needs are not being met?  This is clearly one reason businesses turn to outside providers and pray the cloud answers all their questions and why there’s constant pressure on IT to reduce its costs.

Where Does the Tension Lie?  While there’s little debate that IT is critical and that everyone acknowledges technology is of growing importance, it’s difficult to find the cause of the different views, though here are some thoughts:

  1. IT has done such a great job cutting costs, the achievement can ‘run counter to the concept of implementing new technology to drive innovation.’
  2. By making IT more cost efficient, it can ‘result in devaluing IT as the source of those efficiencies do not flow back to most organizations.’  So lots of effort by IT not matched to the business benefit.
  3. While businesses talk about revenue and market share, IT is stuck describing how it reduced costs — not at all what excites wise shareholders.
  4. IT projects often don’t demonstrate direct business benefit.  For the business to really appreciate the work IT does, ‘discretionary spending has to be evaluated just like you look at other discretionary resources, like capital.’  (For the number one book on this subject, see George Westerman’s The Real Business of IT:  How CIOs Create and Communicate Value.)
  5. Technologists don’t view themselves as decison-makers!  The survey revealed that though nearly 85% of businesses want IT to be decision-makers and help with decisions, only 2/3 of IT agreed.  I don’t have an answer as to why IT would pass up an opportunity to participate in an activity that would raise their profile among the business.  Perhaps technologists are more comfortable around infrastructure and purely technical choices.  Maybe they don’t want to subject themselves to the risk of being wrong when in the sights of their business partners.

The only response to improving IT performance and its stature in the eyes of the business is to ‘work closely with business executives to develop innovative applications.’  While this is statement is neither startling nor new, it’s what’s needed on a consistent basis to educate businesses about IT’s essential value in business innovation and growth.  IT must participate daily to face doubters and demonstrate how technology-driven opportunities can lead to market success.




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Learning About Management from Abe Lincoln

Steven Spielberg‘s movie Lincoln and Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s book from 2005 entitled  Team of Rivals are both respectful appreciations of a quiet man who did extraordinary things.  What are some of the lessons we can extract from a closer look at our 16th president?

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, there are five behaviors of President Lincoln that we would be smart to practice when managing ourselves and others.

Short-term pain for long-term gain

What many don’t know — I certainly didn’t — is that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued under Lincoln’s war powers and thus did not establish a ‘legal basis for abolishing slavery across the nation.’   He knew that once the Confederates were readmitted into the Union after the war, ratifying it as an amendment (the 13th) to the constitution would have had no chance of succeeding.  Wisely, Lincoln ‘pushed to get it through Congress before the fighting ended.’  While this meant the Civil War dragged on longer than it would have otherwise by delaying a peace delegation with the Confederates, it ensured the Proclamation would pass.  What a masterful job of understanding your objectives and being able to clearly see how doing one thing allows you to accomplish another.

Trust your lieutenants

Even if they don’t trust you or agree with you, as Ms. Goodwin points out, by letting your staff do its work, you can achieve great things you could not do on your own.  I’ve written before about Royal Little, founder of Textron, one of the world’s first conglomerates, who  famously once said that he achieved his successes by hiring people to do what he couldn’t, which was considerable, as it is for most of us.  Ms. Goodwin’s best-selling book tells a fast moving story of how political rivals, working at the behest of President Lincoln, who set the agenda and ‘clarified the moral underpinnings of the Proclamation,’ was able to extract the best from each Cabinet member to allow him to achieve his goals.  Simply, he put the best people in the right jobs and let them figure it out, providing guidance only when necessary.

Don’t get isolated as a leader

One of President Lincoln’s personal strategies was to ensure he did not get too far from the fray personally.  Along with other great managers, he knew how important it was to see for yourself, to touch the people who do the work, and to test what you’ve heard.  In Lincoln, Mr. Spielberg shows the ‘president not afraid to court votes himself from time to time — even meeting with Democrats he knew he had little chance of convincing.’  How difficult but how necessary it is to talk to everyone, even those who disagree with you.  No other way can you exert influence on those who think differently than you.

It’s okay to use anger, but sparingly

Our image of President Lincoln is of a folksy, soft-spoken, backwoods, ax-wielding man of extreme intelligence gleaned from reading the world’s great books by candlelight.  Watching Lincoln you’ll see glimpses of his inner fire, ‘most notably when he loses his temper and delivers a passionate rant about the nobility of the Union cause.’  Why did he express his anger at that moment?  To keep his divided Cabinet from giving up on the amendment.  I can only imagine the emotional intelligence of this man.

Take your job home with you

President Lincoln was very close to his youngest son, Tad, who had a genuine interest in the Civil War and its legacy and purpose.  Innocently, Tad influences his father through their father/son discussions because his conscience ‘reinforced [his] father’s morality.’   Isn’t it a wonderful thing to learn from others when their intent is really just to question?  Often the most innocent question or comment can lead to extraordinary insight and reflection.

We can all learn about being good managers — and good people — by understanding how our late President worked with others, trusted, persevered, loved his family and country, and never lost sight of what he wanted to do.



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How CFOs and CIOs Can Be an Effective Team

Used to be that everyone thought the CIO was prey for the CFO.  But times have fortunately changed, with more collegial and valuable relationships being established between the two roles.

In “So, You’re the Boss of the CIO.  Now What?” of March 1st in CFO.com, the author cites results of  a LinkedIn survey that asked finance executives whether it was a good idea that IT reports to the CFO.  The results were 2/3 ‘yes’ and 1/3 ‘no’.  Responses ranged widely — no surprise — from “The CFO does not have an understanding of the risks” to a more measured “It depends on the person in charge.”

What drew my attention was the undeniable fact that IT is increasingly under the finance organization.  Gartner’s research and that done by the Financial Executives Research Foundation found that nearly half of IT departments (in firms of all sizes) report to the CFO.

Given this fact, what can the CIO do to ensure he or she has an effective relationship with the CFO and the rest of the finance department in order to provide the expected leadership?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. The world of IT is becoming more turbulent with ’emerging technologies transforming both the IT function and the relationship between IT and the business.  Software as a  service has enabled business leaders to implement applications outside tradition IT (and finance) controls…and workforce mobility has increased the support needs for a broadening set of devices.’  This is a very difficult environment to keep up, assess costs and risks, and design a one-size workable solution.  Simply said, there is no way any CFO could maintain (attain?) sufficient knowledge to manage any of this directly.  The CIO must step in, realize it is his/her job to build confidence with the CFO by bringing this Tower of Babel under control and creating trust with the CFO.  Even the least technology-aware CFO realizes that technology is complex, with unanticipated risks arising as soon as new technology is implemented.  That’s why the CFO needs someone he or she can trust and turn to, and someone who can explain the environment in simple, straightforward terms, in a language that anyone could understand.
  2. Technology has two parts:  that which is behind the scenes (the infrastructure) and what the client sees (the applications).  Each should be portrayed distinctly to the CFO and managed against different criteria.  “CFOs need to understand that you have to keep the core running.”  Unfortunately, investments in core don’t always yield an obvious ROI — this means the CIO  should spend time explaining the different layers of IT.  While a new phone system will merely get you better listening clarity and some additional features, a new accounts receivable application that yields  cash faster will have a hard dollar benefit.  A CIO’s ability to explain the differences is quite nuanced, and he/she must be sensitive to how the CFO will want the story delivered.
  3. A big part of the delivering the story — beyond knowing how the CFO wants information and decisions explained — is ’emphasizing the difference between finance and IT.’  In IT there are jobs that drive revenue (e.g., ‘web enhancements that attract new customers’) and others that don’t (e.g., ‘systems maintenance’).  This is likely to be a novel fact to the finance staff and will make forecasting ROI very tricky.  ‘Instead, CFOs should look at potential gains’ as opportunities to improve the business overall and the experiences of staff and customers and evaluate projects on these criteria when hard ROI is not determinable.  Working with the CFO, the CIO can suggest how to prioritize projects, using categories of benefits and including ROI whenever available.  A successful CIO recognizes that a CFO thinks differently.

For effective IT management, a ‘CFO needs to know enough about IT to balance the risk of investing against the risk of not investing, and enough to balance the forms of IT that make money with those that don’t but are essential.’

“CFOs and CIOs are in it together, no matter who reports to whom.”  And as in all relationships of this type, understanding and talking are the elements for success.


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Positive Thinking Isn't Always the Right Choice

Have you ever thought about walking on hot coals and what would happen to your feet?  I always thought not getting burned was a trick.  But it seems some people gave it a shot last month in San Jose, California, and they got burned.  Are we surprised?

In the New York Times of August 4th, Oliver Burkman writes of “The Power of Negative Thinking,” referencing the walking-on-coals event called Unleash the Power Within, led by the motivational speaker Tony Robbins.  According to Mr. Burkman you can really can walk on hot coals without burning your feet as long as you know how — and that is with ‘quick, light steps’ because coal (surprisingly to me) is a poor conductor of heat.  (I’m still not going to try it.)

His larger point — and the intent of my writing — is that we hear so much about our ‘mind set’ and the ‘power of positive thinking’ that it can fool us into believing we can ‘will’ an outcome merely by believing in it.  That anything is possible as long as we think  about it the right way.

Unfortunately, that attitude can lead to disappointment and lower self-esteem when you don’t achieve the expected results.  To cite some surprising facts from Mr. Burkman’s article:

  • Positivity can be part of a larger problem where we ‘might do better to reconsider our relationship to negative emotions and situations.’
  • Using visualization can sometimes make people less likely to achieve a successful outcome because it can deprive them of their initiative.
  • Affirmations such as “I am a lovable person’ can actually make you feel worse if you already have self-doubts.  Such sayings can ‘provoke internal grouchy feelings that you’re really not lovable.’
  • “Fixating too vigorously on goals can distort an organization’s overall mission.”  Doing so can actually lead some employees to ‘cut ethical corners.’  Think Enron.

How is this all related to coaching and behavior?  While it’s important in life to balance the positive and the negative, it is more essential to approach our existence with ‘an openness to failure and uncertainty.’  By facing potential adversity, the ‘sobering picture’ reduces anxiety about the future.  As a manager, you don’t want to ‘stamp out negativity;’ rather you want to be prepared for reality, which means not everything is going to work out, nor is everything going to be a failure.  Teaching these lessons to others is included in the role of an excellent manager.


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“What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate”

With apologies to Strother Martin and Paul Newman, who spoke the title of this blog in their 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, I was recently on VoiceAmerica (http://www.voiceamerica.com/show/1984) internet radio, where I was interviewed about this topic, specifically relating to the communication failures between information technology managers and business managers and the impact of virtual teams.

During the podcast, I made observations about these two groups who should be working together very closely – more closely than ever:

  • With only 50% of all technology projects coming in on budget and with full functionality and features, the financial benefit of fixing the problem is significant.
  • Outsourcing and on-shoring have further complicated the relationship by invoking other cultures and more layers of management.
  • Change management is often given short shrift, yet it is the only way to ensure new technology is adopted by the business – this is a business problem that often falls to the technology organization.
  • Consumerization of IT has put technology in an uncomfortable position because corporate IT is just not as simple to deploy and secure as consumer IT.  It’s a fact.  But the simplicity and ease of what consumers can do at home versus what they encounter at work requires a different and more understanding response from information technology organizations.   The notion of ‘can do’ should become part of the corporate IT vernacular.
  • Virtual teams compound the problem – now both cohorts need to be more deliberate.  Chance meetings in hallways and at lunch are no longer alternatives.  Teams need to plan to speak and review plans and deliverables.
  • IT governance can help solidify the technology/business relationship through monitoring of deliverables and provide incremental funding only if business needs are met.

Information technology and business managers should communicate like good friends – easy, ongoing and open discussions, with no hesitancy to raise problems or offer praise.  Let’s not forget that the phrase ‘failure to communicate’ was uttered in a chain gang setting!

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Vexing Technology Management: Not Working Together

Technology management is not getting any easier, despite technology’s ubiquity, the ease with which we integrate it with our daily lives and cloud-based services, which should simplify nearly everything if you believe the press.

The primary reason why there’s a disconnect — a lack of meshing — between users who believe technology should be straightforward and the reality for corporate technology providers is that corporate technology is customized and that requires users and developers to really understand each other.  In fact, I would argue that technology is becoming more difficult to implement successfully.

I continue to see a true lack of communication between the business and technology organizations and implementation failures resulting from lack of understanding rather than anything technical.  In fact, which I’ve mentioned before, a recent McKinsey survey found a low score of 26% for technology leaders proactively engaging with business leaders on new ideas or system enhancements.  This has been a problem for as long as I recall.  I know the 26% figure can be raised.

Trouble is, the business people see the problem but don’t know what to do, while the technologists are so focused on coding and infrastructure and having a project number, they don’t realize the problem’s root cause.   Neither side wants to step into the shoes of the other.

Many ‘blocks’ exist to fixing this problem.  The ‘blocks’ I would concentrate on to solve the problem are:

  • Specifically focusing CIO/CEO discussions on the conversations that should be held between business managers for whom the technology is being developed and the technologists.
  • Understanding the daily relationship between the business managers and technologists.  Normally this is highly discontinuous – which leads to disappointment during user acceptance testing and implementation of the final release.
  • Addressing the unknown effect of outsourcing development, which further distances the business from his/her technology provider.  I think this leads to more ‘throwing it over the fence’ by the business, upsetting the technologists who see themselves more than ever as order takers.  Further, outsourcing highlights communication problems due to cultural, distance and language differences.  And it adds another opportunity for management miscommunication.
  • The dilemma of a CIO who gets kudos for executing ‘overhead’ and believes that is sufficient for creating a strong line of communication and openness with the business organization.   With all the articles and analyses on the importance and role of technology enabling strategy, it’s a shame that the relationship to create a working union still has so far to go.

The ‘blocks’ can be addressed through improved governance, enhanced communication, more mutual planning, and having all parties participate equally.  The gears of both parties need to engage and remain meshed.


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Technologists and Businesses Still Not Engaging with Each Other

A recent McKinsey survey (from December 2011 McKinsey Quarterly  “A Rising Role for IT:  McKinsey Global Survey Results”) notes a true dichotomy in IT performance and IT’s role in business decision-making.  While an increasing number of non-IT executives give IT a score of 61% for basic services like email and laptop support, only 26% rank IT high in the most vital area of ‘proactively engaging with business leaders on new ideas or systems enhancements.’

Maybe not surprisingly, nothing has changed in decades.  Technologists get strong scores for executing the basics well — the infrastructure, which is unfortunately not viewed as a value-added activity.  Yet, the business still does not think highly of IT where it can matter most:  jointly developing strategies to make the corporation more competitive and effective.

A business entity that only relies on technology for doing ‘overhead’ well is not a business that will engender or strive for a strong line of communication and openness with the IT organization, thereby hindering productivity, cost reduction, market positioning and organizational growth.  With all the articles and analyses on the importance and role of technology enabling strategy, it’s a shame that the relationship to create a working union still has so far to go.

I continue to see a true lack of communication between the business and technology organizations, resulting in implementation failures due to lack of understanding rather than anything technical.

Our goal as business and technology managers should be to raise the number reported by McKinsey, develop a truly integrated relationship between the two, and expect nothing less.  I do not believe the problem is that hard to fix.

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It's Not All About You

Before I’ve mentioned how much I enjoy the ‘Corner Office’ section of the Sunday New York Times.  The leaders profiled are well-selected and there’s something new to be learned each week.  Most of all, I find what is said is natural, sensible, clear, and so obvious you wonder how many leaders miss these basics.  The one I cover today is from the paper of December 4, 2011.

Ruth J. Simmons has been president of Brown University for 11 years, though is stepping down at the end of the year to become a professor.  In her interview, entitled “I Was Impossible, But Then I Saw How to Lead,” she made a few remarkable statements that tie back to other brief articles I’ve written about being true to yourself, about considering the organization, being open and being able to change your style when you recognize you need to.

Ms. Simmons makes these few outstanding yet basic points, all of which she has learned — as we all can by having good mentors, superb colleagues, paying close attention, changing behavior, having great coaches and open communication:

  • From her mother, she learned: “Never think of yourself as being better than anybody else.  Always think for yourself.  Don’t follow the crowd.”  Have you noticed how real leaders often assemble disparate and apparently unrelated ideas and put together a cogent argument for taking a different approach?
  • Working kindly with others pays dividends:  “Ultimately, I came to understand that I could achieve far more if I worked amiably with people, if I supported others’ goals, if I didn’t try to embarrass people by pointing out their deficiencies in a very public way.”  We might all view this being a team player, but it’s more than that.  Its entails being fully in the moment, learning from others, and not envisioning yourself as better than someone else.  Everyone has something to add.
  • Bad experiences as well as good ones lead to better understanding:  “I had some bad experiences, and I don’t think we can say enough in leadership about what bad experiences contribute to our learning.”  Don’t let bad experiences demotivate you.
  • Having worked with someone who did not support her, she learned the primary lesson of this article:  “It’s not all about you.  It’s very important in a leadership role not to place your ego at the foreground and not to judge everything in relationship to how your ego is fed. And that seems to be all-important if you’re going to lead well.  The other thing is just how unpleasant it is to work in an environment where you’re demeaned or disrespected.”  As an employee you should never be mistreated; at the same time, it’s essential that you treat others well by leaving your ego behind, lead with kindness and let yourself learn from others, without any expectations other than to participate in the conversation.
  • Ms. Simmons learned a lot about management, about problems, and herself by listening and not judging too quickly what is valuable and what is not, a topic also covered here before.  What you learn could surprise you:  “I talk about this all the time with students.  What I impart to them is that they should never assume that they can predict what experiences will teach them the most about what they value, or about what their life should be.  And I would never have guessed that that experience would be so defining for me.  After all, if I look at it in the arc of my career, it was a tiny job, and in a place that hasn’t really been that significant frankly to me.  And yet that experience taught me so much that I carried it with me for all those years.   So my lesson to my students is you have to be open and alert at every turn to the possibility that you’re about to learn the most important lesson of your life.”
  • We have also covered here previously the absolute need to be honest and direct, that criticism does not need to create conflict.  Ms. Simmons has one of the finest examples of this and how not to prejudge others:  “Probably the most important experience I had in that regard was working at Princeton in the dean of the faculty office for a man named Aaron Lemonick.  He was an unlikely sort of mentor for me. He was Jewish and from Philadelphia.  I was a Baptist from the South.  But we had an immediate connection for a very important reason, and that is that he said what he thought, and I said what I thought.  And the first time that we met and we spoke, we both understood that we’d found something valuable.  He was very focused on details, and it was the first time in my career that I had worked with someone who was so focused on every minor thing, or everything that I thought at the time was minor.  We couldn’t have been more different, but he was very demanding of me, and he didn’t patronize me.  It was the first time probably in my entire career that I actually met somebody who did not patronize me as an African-American and a woman.  The lesson of that, of course, is that as you’re trying to help people, you can give very honest criticism, but if you do it in the context of genuinely wanting to help them, it makes all the difference in the world.
  • We all know that teams and groups of colleagues should have a shared objective.  “I thought it was absolutely essential for all of us as a team to understand that we were there not for our own individual glorification, but to help everybody else thrive. And that meant working together well. I emphasized that more than anything, and I stressed that I would not have any tolerance at all for people who did not, in fact, strive hard to be a part of that team. It meant being interested in others’ work. Being willing to facilitate their success. Being willing to generate ideas as well as generate criticism of what they were doing.  I wanted to establish an environment in which people were comfortable offering criticism, because others understood that underlying that criticism was a fundamental support for who they were, and what they were trying to do.”

Ms. Simmons represents not only an accomplished leader in the difficult arena of higher education.  To me she embodies an enlightened manager who adroitly and unconsciously applies the human qualities inherent in all of us to the fundamental challenges of management and learning and working with others.  I think she did this because she saw value in others, kept her ego in check, and knew when to push and when to hold back.  Clearly, she’s received the best from her staff and that’s quite an accomplishment.

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