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Step by Step

Step by Step

You may be smart, you may be expensive, you may have a track record and qualifications as long as your arm. But once a new employer hires you, you're the new chum and you have to prove yourself all over again. Beverley Head maps out the steps CIOs should take and stumbles they need to avoid when they take on a new challengeHow do you make the most of your honeymoon when you start as CIO in a new company? "What, all 24 hours of it?," quips Greg Brogan, manager of information and technology services for Carlton & United Breweries. That long, Mr Brogan?

The fact is that once a chief information officer is appointed, he or she is immediately under pressure to deliver: to deliver to IT staff, to deliver to end users, and to deliver to management. However well a CIO has performed in the past, there are no guarantees for the future once a new position is accepted.

A new CIO inherits legacy systems and applications, someone else's information technology staff, new users with old grudges, demanding management and board, and an unfamiliar business landscape. Simultaneously, information technology and telecommunications is advancing at such speed that what was an appropriate solution in a previous incarnation is outdated today. The path to information enlightenment is long and twisty. The first step is mundane.

Step One Stabilise

Almost without exception CIOs recommend that the first thing a new appointee does is to stabilise the legacy systems they are faced with.

"I think the honeymoon period is the appropriate time to look at some of the more mundane things -- like the quality of documentation, systems performance metrics, and to talk with internal clients about their perceptions of IT performance within the organisation," says Warren Armitage, CIO at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, the nation's largest private hospital.

Stabilise is the verb which comes long before change, in Ron Chambers' lexicon. Three years into his role as CIO of Ansett Australia, he agrees with Armitage. "The first thing to do is nothing. Keep your eyes open and observe." Chambers adds that an early assessment of the existing applications portfolio is also required. "If you've got unstable systems, the first thing to do is to get what you've got to work as well as it can. They [the board] almost certainly want to see some leadership. Then stabilise the applications portfolio"According to Ian Cogdell, stability should be a priority. Cogdell is presently head of the knowledge centre at Monash Mount Eliza Business School, and a former CIO. He was hired from a role as human resources director at Amcor to be the company's CIO, because he was seen as a change agent. But change wasn't his immediate focus at Amcor. "We standardised before we improved. We stabilised," he says.

The packaging company had grown swiftly by acquisition, netting as it went a slew of different computer systems and applications. Cogdell decided to standardise on one of the legacy systems. He acknowledges it was a sub-optimal solution, as some departments had previously had access to better, if non-standard systems. But he is adamant it was the right approach.

Step Two Lead

Asserting both a status as leader and a style of leadership is important to a new CIO. Cogdell says within the "first 10 minutes" he demonstrated his leadership by laying down the law. "You don't muck around; you've got to say how to do it," he says. "One thing I did when I went into the IT function was to say that we had to specify, design, develop, pilot and deliver within three months. In the past they had been taking up to two years. We did it. It took six months to do it though."

Ansett's Chambers believes that many CIOs are appointed in order to plug what had been perceived as a leadership vacuum in information systems delivery. "Typically what an organisation has lacked and needs is leadership. The principal thing is to demonstrate leadership. My leadership style is collaborative and consultative" but, he warns, does not necessarily extend to chumminess. "A good leader won't win respect by trying to be liked."

Andrew Mitchell joined legal firm Philips Fox as manager of IT in July, having previously worked for Unilever in systems administration. He agrees with Cogdell and Chambers that it is important to set a direction for staff, to establish what is required of them early on. "You set the direction and make sure they are clear about it, so that there are no surprises." Mitchell describes his leadership style as open. "I may appraise them [IT staff] once a year, but I have an open-door policy and I would expect them to appraise me too."

Step Three Listen

Mitchell's open door is one element to communications. Chambers is of the "management by walking around" school. He believes that one of the first things a new CIO should do is to get out, to listen, and to learn. That may involve requesting presentations from information systems staff, or meeting with management or users. It may involve taking advice from existing staff. But beyond listening, Chambers advises CIOs to keep their powder dry and not create or draft "cronies".

"Keep your eyes open and observe. Talk to as many people as you can to get an idea of how the land lies. Identify the political powerbrokers and the honest yeomen. Get a sense of where they are and form your own mental picture," he says. "It is a fair load that you have to assimilate, to find out where people have problems. But assimilating it well will be [key to] whether you will be successful or not." In Chambers' book, a new CIO has between one and three months to develop a solid macro view of the organisation. After that, it's too late.

John Smyrk is an information systems consultant and, by his own admission, an almost totally reformed academic, although he still teaches IT strategy on the Australian National University's MBA program. On occasion Smyrk has acted as mentor to new CIOs. He particularly cites one CIO brought in from the business side of a large manufacturer, who was installed to overhaul the information systems. Smyrk was his navigator through the information technology maze in the early phase of his appointment.

Smyrk claims that although a new CIO might have a completely clean slate the moment he or she walks into a job, that slate very quickly starts to be filled -- until the CIO finds that as quickly as he wipes something off the slate something fills it again. He argues that a CIO has to work quickly to get any value at all from day one's empty slate. But the first requirement is, he agrees, to listen.

"This is absolute listening, where you only provide your views in order to provoke more comment. Often new incumbents start talking too early, because the company has a tendency to say: 'We employed you for some wisdom, well now give us some'," he says. Such imported "wisdom" is almost always worthless.

Mitchell says that he arrived at Philips Fox without an agenda. "You've got to look at what is there and what the business needs. You have to see the key stakeholders and where they perceive that there are problems, where they have trouble with IT." He talked with his IT staff to find out what they wanted, what their problems were, what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go, so that he could best "channel their energies".

He is also coming to grips with the concept of working in a partnership, which is a different organisational concept from the more conventional hierarchical corporate. And, they speak a different language.

Step Four Talk

Not just any talk: talk the business talk, not IT talk. Discard acronyms, warns Cogdell. As part of his work at Monash Mount Eliza Business School, Cogdell develops what he calls theoretical conceptual frameworks which aim to show IT management how to put management theory into action. Cogdell says his research confirms that there is a huge potential barrier to CIOs in terms of the language that they use.

"The trick is to leave the customer -- that is, the people with influence over information management agendas -- feeling in control," he says. "People in executive levels don't know what they don't know -- and the last thing they want to do is be left feeling incompetent."

Cogdell advises technological jargon be ditched. "Quickly come to terms with the language of the business. If they call something the costing system, then call it the costing system; don't call it by the IT acronym. Teach them the language of information management, not the language of information technology, and explain it as you go with a 'what I mean by that is . . . '," he explains. "You have to see that people are at the centre of the information management process, not the technology. Have conversations with people, don't develop a spec in the early honeymoon."

And according to Wesley Hospital's Armitage, those conversations need to extend to the board and management. "I believe it is the time to persuade executive and board level staff that the CIO needs to understand what the strategic imperatives are for the business, if he or she is to make IT valuable for the business. It is not the time for emphasis on technical competence," he says.

Smyrk says CIOs should "avoid fulfilling the common expectation that they are technological wizards, or expert witnesses. To cater to that expectation does untold damage." Better to become a part of the overall business and deliver information systems where they can make a difference. Where possible, Smyrk believes, this will involve outsourcing transactions processing and infrastructure.

"We have reached a point where you'd have to be out of your tree to try and buy and manage such systems," he says. "Then the CIO can take a strongrole in the change management," which is very much the language of business at the end of this millennium. But change management is best delivered by scalpel rather than scimitar.

Step Five Mould

The long knife has no place in the CIO armoury, says Chambers. Although the IT staff you may have inherited will be a mixed bag, you cannot discard them and replace them with cronies however great the temptation.

As Cogdell says "the real dilemma for CIOs is that they have all these legacy systems and staff as baggage, and sometimes you'd like to park it all on the side of the road". But you can't. And outsourcing the whole shebang isn't always an option. Smyrk believes that new CIOs may find it hard to outsource ancient legacy systems, as even the third-party information systems service providers don't want to take on outdated systems and staff.

Generally, the consensus is that a more subtle management and moulding of the inherited systems and staff is better. "Take six months to identify their [staff] capabilities, involving them in the strategic change planning," Chambers advises. "I believe the best way to handle the skills issue is through a large-scale change program." He believes that the change program should get under way within six months of appointment, and at that stage a training program can be introduced, which will develop the skills of the staff who are staying.

"A lot of senior IT people have cronies that they bring with them. I deplore that. It is something I never have done, and never will do. It does not show a lot of integrity. You have to get the people that are [already] there up to the level of skills needed, or out of the organisation, in a fair and ethical and transparent way," Chambers says.

Retrenchment is certainly not something for the honeymoon, agrees Armitage. "I don't believe it is the time to make any radical changes within the internal IT structures; these are typically complex and the last thing a CIO needs is to remove staff and find that systems come crashing down because of hidden dependencies."

But Smyrk recommends a new CIO create some fences early on -- marking out what is and what is not their territory. On occasion that can mean ignoring the original job specification. It's what Smyrk terms, creating the "rules of behaviour and engagement". He acknowledges that the lines of demarcation between IT staff and business staff are unclear, but he believes that it is important new CIOs mark out their territory to an extent where they feel they can make a difference.

This marking out also extends to a divestment of some projects. Smyrk says that it might be the case that a new CIO with a fresher eye will recognise that 90 per cent of the so-called IT projects of the past have, in fact, been business projects, and should more properly have been handled outside the IT department where they would have had a greater chance of success. But he warns that this divestment back to the business of "inappropriate" projects must take place "early when there is room to manoeuvre", and when the information systems portfolio can still be reshaped relatively easily.

Cogdell says that in his experience it is valuable to consider IT staff as two separate streams: development and maintenance. Development staff, he says, tend to want to work at the "bleeding edge" and can be harder to manage and far more career-mobile. Maintenance staff, however, were less mobile, more focused on the needs of the business, and were "often not an impediment to change".

As part of his strategy to mould how the IT staff worked at Amcor, Cogdell added to his three-month rule the requirement that there would never be any creep on specifications of projects. Also, that there would only ever be data entry once (demanding much more systems compatibility than before), and that the information systems people would make time their competitive resource, not dollars.

Step Six Plan

Smyrk believes that the first plan that the CIO should make is one for him or herself. And that, he says, needs to be written down on day one. "You have to decide on a very firm program of establishment. Write it down and say broadly when you expect your 'slate' to be full. Then say you want to complete the listening phase by a certain date, then the fencing (territory map-out) by a certain date, then the divestment to be completed by a date." But Smyrk cautions strongly against any grand declarations of intent. "It's a very common mistake for new incumbents."

Chambers calls his plan his "star chart". It shows his staff, and the users and management where he's taking the information systems. It was up on the wall a couple of months after joining Ansett. Once the initial map was up he could start to identify the strategic direction he would take.

When plotting the star chart he believes it is important to "make judgements on the applications portfolio and judgements on the information portfolio and start to close the gaps as quickly as you can. You need to get those runs on the board to convince the users that you can deliver."

It's the same at Philips Fox. Once Mitchell explored the infrastructure and the applications it became clear what needed to be done and he began developing the business case. A good deal of expense was forecast, as it quickly became clear that much of the infrastructure hadn't been touched for a long time. "I've come from a big multinational to a big legal firm; but it's still much smaller than the multinational," Mitchell says. "I've got a lot of expertise in the areas where they can do things much better."

And that's frequently why a new CIO's "honeymoon" gets cut short.

Step Seven Deliver

Mitchell claims his honeymoon is over and there is now a requirement for action. "It was a short-term honeymoon of a couple of months. They expect results. It is important you stamp your knowledge as quickly as possible on the areas where you can help," Mitchell says. (For Cogdell at Amcor this involved delivering a quick and dirty executive information system to management so that they could quickly see the value there was in better information systems.)Philips Fox has developed a reputation as one of the fast movers in information systems for lawyers and their clients, and as such Mitchell says the firm has quite high expectations.

"I already have a list of things I need to achieve by the end of the year, and I've gone through that with the general manager, who is also the head of finance. You've got to get agreement for what the business wants you to do early on," he adds.

An important element in the delivery phase is the continued management and governance of information systems. "Management by walking around does not stop," Chambers says. "You cannot do too much communicating." He also believes that it is important to instil the culture of the organisation down to IT's bootstraps, so that once change is required, the organisation is primed to act on that requirement and deliver results.

Which is all anyone ever asks of a CIO.

Find Your Right Hand

A good executive secretary can make you a star While some CIOs -- especially those accustomed to reading their own e-mail and being hands-on managers -- pooh-pooh the need for executive secretaries, their worth cannot be overstated. They know where the bodies are buried, and they can help you negotiate the often confusing politics of your company as well as handle the blizzard of e-mail and vendor phone calls you are likely to receive.

If you hire an assistant who is already employed in your company, you can take advantage of his or her valuable institutional knowledge while you learn the ins and outs of the job. It's good if you "click" during the interview process. This unscientific standard is one many CIOs use, since good rapport is essential if an assistant is to anticipate needs as well as competently handle administrative work. In addition, a good knowledge of technology -- familiarity with the e-mail system, for instance -- is also helpful. But since the executive secretary is often the CIO's face to the rest of the enterprise, superior interpersonal skills may be the most important attribute.

Mindy Blodgett

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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