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IT Parenting

IT Parenting

How to make "no" sound like "yes".

At a recent conference, a CIO leaned over and confessed to me that he has a "terminal case of saying yes". My response? You have to say yes - in the right way. The key to CIO success is figuring out how to focus the IT agenda while you gain the reputation of saying yes.

As a rapidly ageing parent of a two-year-old, I will use an analogy near and dear to my heart: CIOs should manage business partner relationships as they would raise children. Your job is to create good IT citizens. Like children, the line managers in the business are self-absorbed - rightfully so. They don't give a whit about being responsible consumers of IT assets; they know what they want from you and don't believe that their desires may not serve the company in the long term.

Parents help their children move out of the house and learn how to take care of themselves. CIOs should help their business partners "move out" of the centralised IT provisioning house so that the organisation can transition to the fiduciary model of IT management. In this organisational model, business units are responsible for the "what" of IT, while IS is responsible for the "how". As you help your business partners move away from dependence on IT and towards IT interdependence, here are some tips on how to make IT parenting more successful and, hopefully, a little more enjoyable.

Appeal to a higher authority. This is akin to parents using religious principles to shift the attention away from them. Use the company's business strategy as your cornerstone and facilitate an IT planning process that identifies and funds the most important IT projects. Get the CFO to establish and enforce tough investment rules. By positioning the CFO as the bad guy, you'll be able to form good-guy relationships with your business counterparts to help them get what they want - while ensuring that they play by the rules.

Be a good role model. Be respectful and easy to work with. Don't assume that you know line executives' business any more than they know yours. Nothing will get a business partner crankier than convoluted approval processes, inadequate basic IT services and your inability to deliver quality software on time and on budget.

Give them chores. Show business managers how to justify a project and submit it for approval. One CIO told me that his customers have learned to hold back project requests until they get the justification right. Set up an approval process that protects your IS organisation from heavy involvement until the initiative has been vetted for strategic fit and value. One of my clients has instituted a project discovery phase that focuses on "why and what" questions and postpones any heavy "how" analysis until after the project has been approved for further study. Improve the odds of project success and, at the same time, test business executives' commitment by requiring that they ante up project resources.

Educate and hold them accountable. Put your staff people in client-facing roles so they can help business partners select a better course of action. Use pilot projects and prototypes to expose soft spots early. If your business partners decide to do something foolish, ensure that they see the consequences. For example, if they hire their own contractors, then insist that they agree, in writing, to do the maintenance and incur the costs of integration. Your hope is that they'll decide against "running away from home" - but if they do leave, they'll be a whole lot smarter when they return.

Choose your boundaries and battles carefully. Some issues are worth going to the mat. Most are not. Give your business partners the freedom to make some IT decisions by giving them an IT allowance and a curfew. Link the granting of this freedom with the responsibility to play by the rules that have been set for value, standards, security, process and economies of scale. On the other hand, if you are trying to keep your company from spending millions of dollars on a questionable investment, it's worth digging in your heels until somebody puts forth the effort required to make the investment pay.

CIOs have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that value is realised from their company's IT investments. They are able to fulfil their responsibility through the provision of value-added services supported by a set of rules - that is, policies, processes and accountabilities. By defining these rules correctly, you can perfect that highest skill of a parent: making "no" sound a whole lot more like "yes".

Susan Cramm, former CIO and vice president of IT at Taco Bell and CFO and executive vice president at Chevys, a Taco Bell subsidiary, is president of Valuedance, a California-based executive coaching firm

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