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The Road Less Travelled

The Road Less Travelled

It’s a sign of good IT leadership when a CIO takes a different path from his competitors

At times, a leader must be a bit of a contrarian. A confident, knowledgeable CIO sees past strong prevailing opinions in IT circles to identify other ways her company can use technology - or not use it - to stand out from the crowd. It's the CIO's job to find new ways to use IT to advance the fortunes of her organization. But this obligation can also put you on the horns of a dilemma. You may find that both your business colleagues and your own IT staff are reluctant to reject the wisdom of the crowd. Things are complicated enough, they say; why make it worse by doing something different?

Leadership means being quick to recognize a good idea — wherever it comes from — and being quick to act on it

Yet sometimes trying something different is exactly what needs to be done. These days, the fast pace of change causes many tried-and-true ideas to lose their effectiveness. CIOs don't necessarily have to blaze new paths on their own, but they do need to keep a sharp watch for companies that succeed with new approaches to technology. Leadership means being quick to recognize a good idea — wherever it comes from — and being quick to act on it. The ability to try new approaches and capitalize on emerging opportunities is a vital part of succeeding as a CIO.

Get Away from the Crowd

Consider, for example, the popular notion that consolidating a company's operations to run on an all-inclusive ERP system is the best way to be efficient and profitable. If I am to believe the advertisements I see in airports from Chicago to Frankfurt, just about every company will soon be running such a system. The contrarian leader ought to wonder whether it's wise for her company to follow the crowd and spend millions on ERP when there may be other IT investments that have bigger payoffs.

The last company I worked for had two large competitors. One of their biggest challenges (as well as our biggest challenge) was to integrate respective business units so they could collaborate to service our national accounts. We all had to face the fact that our organizations were composed of many different units using different ERP systems to run their internal operations.

Our competitors followed the conventional wisdom. One company spent more than $US150 million trying to standardize on a single ERP system. The other spent tens of millions of dollars (what it cost then) to build a proprietary Web order entry and product catalogue system - another popular idea at the time.

Although the CEO and CFO backed my recommendation not to invest more in ERP, there was a lot of pressure on me to deploy one of those proprietary order entry and catalogue systems. The consultants who were facilitating our strategic planning process pushed hard for us to hire them to build it. But I thought that if we followed their advice we would spend most of our money on a plan that, at best, would give us only the same capabilities our competition had. I saw a different and much less expensive way to integrate our business units and provide an online ordering capability. Taking this alternative path would make money available to develop other systems that would provide us with capabilities our competitors didn't have and thereby provide a competitive advantage.

My contrarian instincts were backed by a deep understanding of my company's business and my knowledge of IT. My expertise gave me confidence in my convictions when I presented my ideas to the board of directors. I showed them how to get what the company needed faster and for a lot less money than if we took the conventional path offered by the consultants. The board was swayed and approved my plans.

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