If You Build It, Will They Come?

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Could you &#8212 should you &#8212 offer to custom-build real-time KPI digital dashboards for every C-level executive in your firm? Would they be thrilled, indifferent to, or insulted by your offer?

The Accountability Trap

There are differences between data, information and key performance indicators that go far beyond semantics. I could glibly assert that CIOs should have a Chief KPI Officer to handle the challenge of servicing C-level KPIs (and just for kicks, custom-build executive compensation KPIs for the independent directors on the board), but that would be too easy. The serious point is whether the CEO even wants to have the CIO oversee construction of a KPI infrastructure that creates new genres of executive accountability. Would C-level executives embrace such an initiative or seek to subvert IT at every turn? Would their direct reports want KPI-driven apps to govern their operations? Would they think of KPIs as meaningful business goals or potentially punitive corporate constraints? After all, if profit margins are the dominant KPI, that can discourage efforts to win new business.

There's a simple reason for this welter of questions: All organizations have two cultures of implementation. The first - and most obvious - is the culture that actually does the hard technical work of gathering requirements, building prototypes, polishing production systems, and then rolling out and supporting its technology.

The other is the implementation culture that drives CIOs to the brink of insanity and despair: the implementation culture of the client. It's the gap between what clients say they want and what they actually need, between how clients say they run their business and how they actually do. It's the chasm between what clients say they want to accomplish and what they're prepared to invest to accomplish it. There's nothing novel or shocking about these gaps and chasms. However, successful CIOs know that all implementations are essentially compromises, negotiations and accommodations between these two cultures.

Savvy CIOs know they cannot afford to allow the pathologies of either culture to afflict the other. Nothing annihilates credibility faster than a technical implementation culture whose "stretch goals" lead to over promising and under delivering. Similarly, nothing promotes technical cynicism more quickly than a client implementation culture that insists on technical excellence for mediocre business processes. In other words, CIOs need to always be on the lookout for media and methodologies to better align these two cultures.

Then again, I can't help but recall the "Executive Decision Support System" movement of the late 70s and early 80s that generated great academic enthusiasm but yawns from operating executives. Perhaps this era of IT-enabled regulatory compliance, shareholder activism and intensifying demands for executive accountability will prove more inviting to KPI champions such as Ballmer.

That said, you'd think that CIOs would welcome KPI digital dashboards as a fabulous opportunity to make IT matter even more within the enterprise. Does the cool reception KPIs received in Redmond reflect a lack of confidence in CIOs? Or does it demonstrate a lack of courage and integrity by their bosses?

Making IT Work columnist Michael Schrage is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative

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