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Double Agent

Double Agent

The role of the CIO continues to evolve: information and technology guru to the board, strategist, mentor and corporate player. Information management and technology continues to bring change to the way we do business, and the CIO can play a vital role ensuring that the business is ready for the next onslaughtThe old saying is that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Perhaps we should add "change" to that list. And nowhere is change more certain than in the field of information management and technology (IM&T). Even the name changes. When I first dragged out my clutch pencil and started coding Cobol programs in 1973, we had just started calling ourselves EDP. We had ditched the old ADP tag and weren't ready yet for "IT".

Meanwhile, processors have become faster, hardware smaller, software bigger and more complex. Disk space - once a premium resource - is now so inexpensive as to hardly merit consideration. A number of today's CIOs are veterans who thrived in this maelstrom of change. Where lesser individuals were dragged under, these leaders rose to the most senior roles in our profession.

IM&T has emerged from the shadows of the netherworld to become a shining new star in the corporate firmament. In more mundane terms, it has evolved from a back-office support division to become a strategic marketing weapon. Whether it be e-business, customer relationship management or supply chain management, it is difficult to imagine a large corporation without an information- or technology-enabled business strategy.

Changes brought to organisations through increasingly complex and costly projects are more far reaching than the progress of technology. By guiding these projects, the CIO fulfils one of the prime objectives in ensuring the alignment of the technologies and systems to the business objectives.

I have been lucky enough to be involved in many successful projects over the years. Recently I was involved as CIO and sponsor in a project that spanned three years and which directly involved more than 10 per cent of the business staff. Jobs were deleted as a result of this work. A smaller number of new positions were created and many others modified to some extent. For the first time in my experience, we had a full-time change management group within the project team. These people had no IT background to speak of, but had expertise in training, human relations and communication.

It was this project that crystallised for me the need for the CIO to be more than an "enabler" of change. The CIO must be a change leader. As a CIO who is part of the executive team, I had a corporate responsibility for the successful outcome of IT-enabled projects. Like it or not, change management is a key contributor to most, if not all large projects. Get it wrong and the whole project is in danger.

A change manager is often the person drawing up plans, conducting impact analyses, designing training, redeveloping jobs, communicating progress and so on.

The CIO as a change leader ensures the environment is conducive to a successful outcome. Few people in an organisation have sufficient knowledge and the seniority to carry this off. I am not talking wishy-washy motherhood here; there are difficult, and at times nasty, jobs to be done to create an environment of success. The change leader has to ensure that there is a project champion appointed who has the motivation and seniority (power) to make things happen, such as ensuring the project is staffed by the people you actually need, not just those that happen to be free at the time.

The CIO needs to ensure that the CEO fully understands all of the potential risks and benefits and actively promotes the project. Having the CEO on board is just the start. On corporate projects, the entire senior management team must be seen giving 100 per cent support. As in other fields of leadership, they have to be seen as role models: walking the talk.

No Room for White Ants.

When management is first considering whether to embark on a primary project, it is imperative to hear all sides of an argument. However, once the decision is made, it's crucial that executives become zealots for the cause. Detractors - particularly at executive level - can be expensive, if not disastrous. Unfortunately, you can usually depend on at least one voice of opposition in any project.

A CIO seldom has the seniority to rectify this situation alone, so he or she must work closely with the CEO to build a guiding coalition or steering committee and create the supporting culture. While criticism and feedback is healthy, opposition to the agreed project objectives is not. The CEO must be encouraged to send out a clear message that such opposition will not be tolerated. If the undertaking is business-critical, offenders may have to be taken out of the picture.

In most organisations, there is a tendency towards complacency at the beginning of any change initiative. This needs to be replaced with a sense of urgency from day one, and that is no easy task. There are various ways of dealing with complacency. The greater the inertia in the organisation, the more drastic the solution may become. John Kotter in his book Leading Change suggests that it may even be necessary to create a business crisis to bring the status to red alert. Not something I have tried personally although I have been sorely tempted at times.

On the communication front, the CIO can be instrumental in ensuring that the project has a "vision" that can be clearly and concisely communicated. A statement is needed that does not waffle on, but answers the question: "Why are we really spending all of this time, effort and money on this project?". Something to which staff, and even your clients, can sign up. The CIO could facilitate workshops with other executives to develop a statement that can be expressed in a few minutes.

The CIO needs to encourage feedback using as many sources as possible and ensure that this gets back to the sponsor, the CIO, executive management and the CEO. This is often raised as one of the key arguments for the CIO to be part of the executive and board: to make sure there is a free flow of relevant information to and from the highest levels of management, and that the message is not being diluted or misunderstood.

One activity that is often overlooked is celebrating success. If the project is expected to take several years, try to incorporate some short-term wins. People won't wait three years to see signs of progress. They will be fatigued, and appreciate some evidence of progress. Short-term wins address this need and provide an opportunity to celebrate in a way that recognises and rewards the efforts being made by staff. If the past few years are any guide, you may be asking some of the same people to step up to the plate again for another change initiative in the near future, and you'll need them on side.

Remember Florida.

A word of caution in relation to the eventual project outcome: don't declare victory too early. Often change is not really complete until it is embedded in the corporate culture. So by all means celebrate the final implementation - or whatever event signifies the end of the project effort - but let it be known that real success will be measured by how well it is achieving the desired results in six or 12 months time. Then make sure to monitor those results over that time.

There are, of course, other activities, and there is no shortage of worthwhile books written on the subject. But the basic message is that the CIO has a specific responsibility to ensure the success of corporate IM&T projects. To this end, change management and change leadership must form part of the toolkit. The CIO is in a special position, understanding the technology and the business objectives, and being in a position senior enough to influence executive management behaviour.

Whether the CIO brings on board specialist change managers to assist, conducts his or her own research or relies on previous experience will differ with each person. The CIO has become a corporate player. It is no longer enough that the systems work or the hardware is reliable. Corporate projects are often massive undertakings and cannot be viewed as separate technical, human and system activities. The approach needs to be holistic, and the CIO needs to expand leadership abilities accordingly. vSteve Amesbury is co-founder and director of Island Consulting Pty Ltd (formerly Island Technology). He recently completed five years as director information services at the NSW Office of State Revenue. During that time, Amesbury was on several government committees responsible for developing standards, and was a well-known proponent for change in state government (IM&T) forums.

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