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Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Misery loves company.

You are not alone | You might feel like you are, sitting atop the corporate IT tree with no friends but a CEO who can't understand technology no matter how little he tries, and a CFO with a bad case of budget-myopia.

Your metaphoric tree has its roots in a large forest; there are lots of CIOs and IT managers who have taken similar arbour-oriented positions and share the same frustration and challenges that at once make your job one of the greatest but toughest in the corporate world. Having interviewed almost 80 CIOs in the past 12 weeks for various research projects (under the cloak of anonymity), it is clear this group consists of members of the same choir, singing from the same song-sheet of budget-bastardry, security fears, compliance challenges, Microsoft headaches and people problems.

Actually, I'm being a bit dramatic on the budget front. Not all the purse strings have been snipped. In fact, for a number of organizations budgets for this year are actually increasing, some faster than the actual growth of their own business.

One of the favourite cliches of the past two years has been to describe the downtrodden IT department as "doing more with less" - a circumstance true for the majority of teams since the bubble burst back in 2001. The brighter economic outlook may not change this situation. A number of CIOs have lamented that the budget has been sliced into "operations" and "projects", with the latter category funded mostly from the capital expenditure cost-centre. The manifestation of this situation is completely predictable, at least for a few of us cynics.

"My life is a bit schizophrenic," lamented one CIO. "My operations and help desk guys are working like dogs. We had to make some cuts in staffing as part of an across-company reduction in expenses, yet the team is looking after more users and applications than ever. On the other hand, the project managers and developers think it is Christmas. They have a lot of work on and they are finding all the projects challenging and stimulating. So I have to perform a real HR balancing act."

Another CIO, who finds himself in the same position, lamented that his management peers "really don't care" about such challenges. "From their point of view, they just want the projects done on time and on budget," he said.

Those who preach the message of support and alignment have the easiest row to hoe. Those spruiking IT as a dynamic force ready for revolt against business practices entrenched since the Dark Ages find themselves perpetually swinging and missing.

One IT manager in a state government agency expressed his experience in this way: "I see so much waste and bad process in my organization. I truly believe my department has the ability to change things for the better. We are process-driven and my colleagues need to start thinking in the same way. I have two challenges. Firstly, the senior managers all run their own fiefdoms and the politics, especially if it involves change, is horrible. Secondly, when I do have conversations about how IT can help them, I feel there is a cultural resistance that says: 'Who does this IT guy think he is, telling me how to run my business?'"

Saddest of all perhaps, is that this CIO said he was pretty tight with a number of peers in the same state government, and their experiences were not so different.

The biggest shock to the system around process has occurred for companies and government agencies that have undertaken offshore outsourcing projects. Far from the common view that we know more than the Indians, local IT departments are stunned at the precision required on their part. One CIO manager said that he had investigated the offshoring option and had backed out. "This is nothing to be proud of," he said, "but my IT team and business colleagues just do not have the discipline to work with the Indians."

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