Lions Led by Donkeys

Lions Led by Donkeys

The path of most resistance is not easily travelled

It is five years ago since I was asked to write a monthly column for the new CIO magazine. I had been running the InTEP forum for IDC for three years and I was asked to comment on current issues confronting Australian CIOs. Since I am still doing both, the editor asked if I would comment on how the CIO role has changed over the years.

At the outset let me stress that I believe the role has become immeasurably more difficult. In 1997 it was fashionable to talk of aligning IT to the business. IT could not operate in isolation; it had to get out there and find out what the business was planning. There were no IT plans, only business ones. Yet I get the distinct impression that strategic planning in most Australian corporations today is a series of knee-jerk reactions to the latest quarterly announcement to the stock market. How can a CIO align IT to the business when the business does not know where it is going?

Look at some of the corporate results under this current executive tutelage. One.Tel's systems were incapable of producing a bill on time while Ansett's and FAI's failed to forewarn Air New Zealand and HIH respectively of the obvious perils ahead. These instances are not evidence of IT out of kilter. Instead I believe they indicate executives cocooned from the real world.

To compound matters, this is a climate where everyone is penny wise and pound foolish. The mantra is cost cutting with the result that now everyone is under-resourced and inefficient. Staff are seen as headcounts that distort the revenue per employee projections on which executive bonuses are calibrated. Cut 1000 staff and the value of your stock price and options go up. Never mind what this does to the ability of your business to operate.

Everyday I encounter CIOs valiantly battling these circumstances. Fighting to get funds for education and training to ensure that the moneys spent on new systems bear fruit. Manning the help desk in their lunch hour because there are no staff left to cover. Doing their e-mail on weekends or at midnight just so they can keep up. Unable to attend seminars because their schedule has just been hijacked by some executive who called a meeting on an hour's notice.

When I see CIOs today, I am reminded of the war correspondent who described the soldiers of the First World War as lions led by donkeys. Yet I see CIOs starting to fight back against this executive short-sightedness. The use of SLAs and chargeback is growing, often to protect the IS department from time-wasting business requests. Benchmarking continues to grow in importance for CIOs as they strive to advise the business on what really is achievable under best practice.

However, in the end, CIOs can choose to control their destiny. They can either accept they are working in a corporation thrashing about wildly or they can get out. Increasingly, I am finding just that - for example, senior IS executives in top 100 companies electing to take a salary cut to help an SME get on top of IT. The decision-making process is more straightforward and the results are more immediate. Perhaps when a few more take this path big business will wake up to the importance of IS.

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