It's Lonely at the Top

It's Lonely at the Top

Overhauling IS infrastructure is a lot like trying to change a tyre while your car is still moving.

One common lament I hear from CIOs is that it's something of a lonely job. There is no comparable role in an organization; therefore, there is no peer with whom they can discuss the difficulties of the job. Perhaps that is why CIOs welcome the opportunity to network with their counterparts in other organizations. It allows them to hear that others have the same problems.

This was clearly bought home to me earlier this month at IDC's Asia Pacific CIO Summit. There were CIOs from 14 countries in the region. Right from the outset it was evident that everyone in the room had the same challenges.

The theme of the conference was "Weaving IT into the Business Fabric" - a noble aim, to be sure. Yet it wasn't long before the chief challenge of achieving this was recognized: Thanks to a relentless stream of restructures, mergers and takeovers, business is a constantly moving target for most CIOs. The early conclusion was that CIOs need a dynamic IT infrastructure to achieve such integration. This was defined as the ability of IT to respond swiftly to emerging business issues. Much of the focus from the conference from then on was how this can be established by the CIO.

Most of those present readily recognized that the creation of a dynamic IT environment is much easier said than done. One Australian IS executive sitting at my table lamented the difficulty of dealing with an incumbent ERP financial system. By their very nature these tend to be rigid, since they seek to impose a discipline of common rules and definitions. However, dynamism implies the need for flexibility to achieve agile responsiveness. Unfortunately, most ERP suppliers are headquartered outside the Asia Pacific region and are somewhat disinclined to modify their core systems at the behest of an organization in a country which isn't prominent on their radar screen.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum are the business customers who expect service to be tailored to their requirements. Another Australian IS executive at my table was from a large multinational manufacturer of processed food. Her hurdle was dealing with the two large retailers who dominate the Australian grocery marketplace. It's common for them to demand that product is supplied and processed in a set form. In fact, it was an inability to respond to one such request that had resulted in her organization overhauling most of their IS infrastructure.

The versatility of the IS infrastructure was seen as essential for a truly dynamic IT department. Sadly, though, most CIOs don't have the good fortune of building a new IS infrastructure on a greenfield site. As one Singaporean CIO remarked, overhauling the IS infrastructure is a bit like trying to change a tyre while the car is still moving: at best it can only be done in increments. Moreover, it requires some significant investment from the business to establish a new IS infrastructure, and the ROI that will be generated from this expenditure is almost impossible to predict. Yet if the business wants an IT environment that is not a straightjacket on its future developments, then it has to be prepared to front up with this money.

Which of course brings us to the question of IS governance. The ability of an IT department to be dynamic is, in many ways, a reflection of the support they receive from the business they serve. When business accepts its responsibilities for IS outcomes, then a dynamic IT environment is a realistic goal. When it does not, then frustration all round seems to be the order of the day. In my ten years running InTEP this is a lament I have heard with monotonous regularity. As such, I left the conference with one solace for Australian CIOs. Fear not, for you are not alone.

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