It’s the bête noire of C-level managers the world over — too often, it’s easy to be pulled into the morass of day-to-day issues at the expense of strategy. If the role is predominantly operational, fair enough, but being forced into operations when you were hired to be strategic (or vice versa) is frustrating for everybody involved.
So how do CIOs balance operations and strategy? Aligning the departmental business plan with the organisation’s strategic plan is an obvious starting point. Beyond that, however, CIOs have developed their own methods of staying strategic.
Tactics versus strategy
Deputy secretary for ICT infrastructure for the Department of Human Services, John Wadeson, is all too familiar with the demands on a CIO. The former Centrelink chief information officer is looking to align the IT infrastructure across agencies and says, if you're not careful, you can spend your whole working day looking at boards.
“When problems do occur and the boards fill up with red your productivity may well go below zero as you start to reflect on the perils of being a CIO. To make matters worse this is when you will hear from many of the business people that you have not run into since the last Christmas party.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Intercontinental Sydney director of information technology, Ben Wrigley, who says CIOs must work to ensure plenty of good technology stories abound.
“It’s very difficult to talk to the CEO or the board when you have a project that is failing — they will continually refer back to that,” he says. “If you are constantly putting out spot fires, it makes it next to impossible to evangelise a technology.”
Making time for strategy
The notion of making time for strategy is a concerning one for the CIO of the Queensland Building Services Authority, David Elkin.
“It frames the notion of strategic thinking as a task,” he says. “Strategic thinking at the right level of maturity is more a ‘state of awareness’ than a concerted effort.” Elkin says a CIO should have a mature level of understanding of the business and its industry, the micro and macro environments, and emerging trends and technologies so that the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for the organisation from an ICT perspective frame discussions and issues.
“Strategically not just operationally,” he adds. “It’s about being attuned enough to position the organisation in response to these considerations, in both the long and short term, and aligning it to present organisational strategic objectives.” Wrigley agrees. “You may only get one chance a year to be strategic — when you do the budgets — but it’s always high on the list of things to think about.”
Rather than finding time for strategy, Wadeson says it’s about finding the time to spend with the users of the system you are supporting.
“Whether they be staff at the front of the counter, specialists in data mining in the control groups or customers documenting their thoughts on the portal — these are the discussions that trigger the strategic side of the brain.”
Build a strong team and architecture
CSC CIO, Ben Patey, says having a strong team and platform from which to work can help ensure you’re not constantly being dragged into the operational mire.
“Make sure you have invested in an IT environment that allows you to look forward, rather than backwards all the time,” he says.
Elkin says CIOs must nurture a strong operational foundation, with governance as a cornerstone.
“It may not be the most exciting responsibility in the CIO’s portfolio, but it is fundamental to put in place a solid framework that enables the entire organisation to be able to make consistent operational decisions around procurement, project management, service delivery and the like,” he says.
“The second cornerstone is developing and fostering a strong IT leadership team that complements the CIO, essentially having strong communicators who are technically superior in their fields and capable of making solid decisions.”
It’s also about having a level of trust within the team that enables constructive conflict, he says.
Share and share alike
As Wadeson points out, comparable government organisations around the world are trying to achieve many of the same objectives.
“There are strong parallels too in the private sector and the universities can offer rich sources of information and advice,” he says. “Partnering is a newly emerging trend in government as government itself starts to define objectives at a whole of government level.” Personal networks also play a key role.
“There is no point reinventing the wheel when you are able to learn from others and their mistakes and successes,” says Elkin.
Elevate the tactical to a strategic level
Communicating operational issues in terms of strategy can help CIOs keep their eyes on the big picture.
“Explain operational problems in terms of business costs and your ICT strategy,” Wadeson says. “Keep the subject on the executive radar by explaining to colleagues how an outage experienced by the organisation today can be linked directly to issues addressed by ICT strategy and the funding you have requested into next financial year. Make sure the connection between what is happening today and what you are planning to do in future is not lost.”
A state of mind that allows you to focus on the possible, whether it is keeping up with events beyond the IT sphere or staying on top of the latest technology, can help. “You have to have the foundations in place to deliver good technology services,” says Wrigley. “And success builds on success.”