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False Perceptions

False Perceptions

Too many business leaders have little faith in IT's ability to deliver value. To save themselves - and their businesses - CIOs must change that negative perception into a positive belief in IT as a strategic partner.

per•cep•tion n. an interpretation or impression based on one's understanding of something - The Oxford Concise Australian Dictionary

Oscar Wilde wrote: "The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing", and today, within far too many businesses, his aphorism aptly describes the problem with the perception of IT. Those who doubt IT's value (and rail against its cost) are everywhere - in the boardroom, among the CXO ranks, heading up business units and among the end users.

True, CIOs are making tremendous strides toward boosting IT's credibility. Many are overseeing a balanced portfolio of IT work and practising good project management. Some have figured out how to run their IT shops like disciplined businesses. And plenty of IT chiefs have a seat at the executive table.

But data from a recent CIO (US) survey, "Turning IT Doubters into True Believers", indicates that the business side's take on IT is still less than stellar. Even among companies with a solid reputation in the IT community, the average business perception of IT's value is an unimpressive 6.05 on a scale of one to 10 (with one being extremely negative and 10 being extremely positive).

The biggest complaints? IT costs too much. It takes too long to deliver benefits or doesn't deliver them at all. IT is a commodity that fails to deliver differentiation. It doesn't line up with business strategy.

In many cases, these perceptions of IT are misperceptions, based on a lack of understanding or awareness. Not that that matters. "When you get to a certain level in an organization, perception is reality," says George Tillmann, vice president and CIO of management and IT consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. "You can argue [that it's unfair] till you're blue in the face, but it really won't get you anywhere."

Because people act on their perceptions, whether valid or not, a negative view of IT can have real consequences for the organization. Most notably, according to survey participants, companies that value IT less miss out on opportunities for innovation and growth and, ironically, spend IT dollars inefficiently. "If a business doesn't believe in IT and doesn't believe that investing in IT is a choice that will produce results, they can put themselves at a competitive disadvantage" to companies that believe in IT and do invest, says Michael Gerrard, vice president at Gartner.

The good news is that CIOs can change how the business perceives IT and its value. Using a combination of measurement and communication practices, along with alignment-enhancing moves, CIOs can turn adversaries into allies and doubters into true believers - that is, businesspeople who regard IT as a strategic partner capable of delivering high value to the enterprise. The CIO's success depends on it. "You absolutely have to have people that believe in you," says Dave Holland, CIO of Genesys Health System.

It won't be easy. Business leaders may be loath to commit their time or resources to getting involved in IT, and lack of a clear framework for valuing IT can handicap CIOs seeking to raise IT's reputation. And perceptions, particularly long-held ones, don't disappear overnight, or even with a success or two. Changing minds takes consistent effort, not only in terms of delivering IT value but in measuring that value, communicating that value and enlisting the business to help IT deliver that value.

But for those who succeed in making believers out of the business, it's worth it. Benefits amount to a virtual wish list for most CIOs: increased credibility with the business, closer alignment with business objectives and improved ability for the CIO to influence the business.

It's impossible to improve how IT is perceived without basic competence in the function and some level of system implementation success, but simply being competent or achieving a major project win is not enough. CIOs must be proactive and consistent about spreading the good news of IT value with effective measurement, alignment and communication (see "The Best Ways to Change Perception", page 68). Using a combination of these best practices tailored to their specific situations and needs, CIOs can attack the following typical complaints about IT.

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