It's Critical to Be Political

It's Critical to Be Political

Navigating the choppy waters of organizational politics is a daily challenge for CIOs; some play shark and engage with other political creatures, but there are still plenty of CIOs acting like krill

"To understand the CIO power games I offer three propositions that guide CIO power politics:

  • First proposition: Installing information technology is the continuation of bureaucratic conflicts by other means (as inspired by Clausewitz).

  • Second proposition: Information technology corrodes bureaucracy and therefore will be always opposed.

  • Third proposition: All great ideas about information technologies degrade into budgets"

— Paul A Strassmann


That was the one-word response from a high-profile CIO about how to chart and survive the political waters of a large enterprise. He did not want to elaborate, even anonymously.

Politics persist, and for CIOs the political arrows come from myriad directions — from the IT team, from the business, from C-level peers, from vendors trying to wheedle their way to the business and circumvent the CIO, from executive management, from the board. For some there are also tricky horizontal political issues to manage, such as racial politics, especially for CIOs hiring quantities of overseas IT workers on 457 visas, and gender politics.

If CIOs do not learn how to manage organizational politics successfully then the information systems suffer, with sub-optimal solutions delivered in order to appease individuals rather than meet the business needs. "This is the biggest single problem created by adverse politics in the workplace," says one CIO. "This outcome is very, very common and actually goes to prove the point that CIOs are not very good at managing political interference for the best outcome of the corporation."

CIOs interviewed for this article say they feel particularly at risk from political interference because of their perceived rank and role in the organization. "CIOs are senior people viewed as supporting the business, not as equal players in the game," one states. "They are not revenue generators, they are cost centres, and in the minds of businesspeople that equates to second class."

The executive felt this was particularly the case for older baby boomer employees and may change as a younger, savvier generation rises through the ranks. Right now, though, politics is played out largely with other cost centre folk like the CFO or COO — "other non-business executives where there can be a vying for attention, credibility, revenue from the business-level executive and the CEO".

A particular point of political tension exists between the CIO and CFO and their respective teams. "I think it's partly about ownership and control of data as well as the inability of finance people to run projects . . . If left to their own devices finance will make decisions and drive outcomes in a very unstructured way and they will often try to control the IT in their space," according to one IT executive.

This is exacerbated by the lingering perception that technology is an expensive long-term exercise. "So where organizations are usually focused on their costs and revenues, technology is seen as one of the key issues and not being able to help." That perception immediately sets the touchpaper fuse on a slow burn.

As to why people feel the need to play politics in the first place, one CIO suggests that people are driven by just three motives: self-preservation, securing credit and gaining power. While all three are linked, he believes one of these issues will drive most organizational politics.

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