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In today’s diverse, fast-moving business technology landscape, where can the CIO turn for help and advice?
Whether they’re trying to understand how an emerging technology can transform their business for the better, or looking for people to help guide the organisation through difficult strategic changes, there are no end of organisations and individuals offering to hold their hand.
There are the horizon-scanning research houses, such as Gartner and Forrester; strategic management consultants, such as McKinsey and Bain & Company; independent peer networking organisations, such as CIO Connect and Winmark; giant do-it-all systems integrators (SIs) such as Accenture and IBM; and an army of smaller, niche consultancies and independent specialists covering different markets and sectors. Each have their pros and cons, and CIOs know it pays to choose carefully, depending on the challenge at hand and the particular size and nature of their own organisation.
When looking at emerging trends and technologies, many find the likes of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant and the Forrester Wave useful in deciding which suppliers should be on their radar. One former FTSE 100 CIO who wished to remain anonymous said: "When you’re making a business case to the board, there is something very powerful about telling them, 'Gartner says Product X is leading in this space, which supports our recommendation,' or for your procurement team to say they’ve picked a shortlist of eight suppliers using the Forrester Wave."
Nonetheless, he cautions that CIOs should always regard research houses with a level of scepticism. "Anything written by Gartner, Forrester and the rest is based on historical data. While it might point to a trend going forward, it takes six months for them to write their papers – by which time the insights they contain are 12 months old," he says.
"There’s also cynicism in some quarters that, unless a supplier is sponsoring the research house to the tune of £50K or more, they won’t get recognised or talked about. They would deny that of course, but we have seen trends in the positioning of key vendors, tools and services that reflect suppliers’ overt relationship and sponsorship of analyst events."
He also questions the value of the research companies' paid subscription services. "Research houses say you need to invest £50-100K in their services to obtain value. That’s a lot to pay for enterprise-wide access to a bunch of expert reports and journals. In all my experience of subscription services like Corporate Executive Board (CEB), Forrester and Gartner, my team have always said they don’t make enough use of them. We all get logons but probably only use the service once or twice a year," he says.
"It’s a bit like gym membership. If I’m doing the London Marathon, I’d rather spend two months paying for specialist training than keep up an annual membership I hardly ever use."
Steve Pikett, CIO of a well-known department store, agrees. "Their subscription services are not good value unless you’re a really big company with lots of people pulling reports all the time. I’d rather pay for individual reports as and when I’m looking at a specific area. But I only use them as indicators – not as a decision-making tool. To really get under the skin of a particular body of research, you need to talk to people who specialise in the particular services or technologies you’re looking at," he says.
The big systems integrators (SIs) can be useful partners if your organisation is large enough to handle them. Ian Campbell, the former Group CIO of the Highways Agency who is now leading digital transformation at a large US bank, says: "I try to make sure we broadly have the right skills to do the work we plan to do in a year – so we usually only seek external advice if something comes out of the blue or from leftfield, or if we’re looking at something new on a three-to-five-year horizon. But to build a business case where we don’t have internal expertise, I’d generally quiz the big service providers and SIs first to see what’s out there."
But Pikett thinks smaller companies would be wise to steer clear. "Most big SIs have a set methodology they like to work to," he says.
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"They don’t move at the speed of smaller organisations, or align with the way they make decisions. So, for example, you might end up with three or four different people at the SI who need to speak to you. You find yourself saying the same thing over and over to different people and it can get wearing. You don’t want to be sent off to see someone else, or that’s another chunk of your time gone."
Nonetheless, he acknowledges the big players' strict, methodological approach can be useful on occasion. "I knew a supplier hadn’t done due diligence on the provisioning of a datacentre, and I knew this would result in us having to make some difficult decisions that would be hard to sell to the business. So I brought in Ernst & Young to show a governance structure that proved my case. There are times when using those organisations adds value – although I only use them when I know a recommendation is liable to be particularly contentious or uncomfortable," he says.
For Pikett, smaller niche consultancies and independent experts are generally better value. "You want that one guy who’s done something over and over and knows the market inside out. When you have a conversation with him, he’ll have a whole set of answers," he says. The challenge here is in finding such people.
"When I’m seeking advice I want a real opinion – someone who’ll say they’d never buy that product and here’s why, or they’ve put it in successfully for 15 organisations and anyone who says it doesn’t work at scale is talking rubbish. That’s the kind of strength of opinion I want if I’m spending good money. I want opinion not research – and too many advisors mix the two up. I’m seeking guidance, not options," says Pikett.
One former FTSE 100 CIO says finding individual consultants you can trust is critical, regardless of the organisation you enlist. "A great consultant I know moved from one large company to another. So I moved with him and never talked to the other company again. It is all about relationships – knowing and trusting people," he says.
Peer and social networks
One good way of finding third-party advisors is to ask for recommendations from other CIOs, which is where peer networking organisations come into their own. Campbell says: "I use consultants if I’m looking at a broader issue that’s not directly about implementing a particular system. Then I talk to other CIOs and CTOs to see what they’ve done. Networks like CIO Connect will introduce me to someone who is doing exactly what I am trying to do. I can then ask if they’ve struggled with any suppliers, or have any strong recommendations of who to work with."
The former FTSE 100 CIO agrees: "Peer networks are great for debate and sharing knowledge. Say I’m looking to implement SAP, I can ask my peers who they’ve worked with and who they’d recommend. I can get introductions and upfront advice – we all help each other.
"I get to hear from CIOs across different sectors, I find out what others are doing, where they’re challenged and where they’re succeeding. I can choose what to say or not say. And they provide a private, confidential environment I can use to test an idea before I take it back to the office. Then there’s the social element – we all like a chat after all."
In fact, all the CIOs Computer Weekly contacted found peer networks to be great value. Pikett says: "Your peers may not be subject matter experts themselves, but they can be invaluable for pointing you towards competent people who are – and warning you who to steer clear of," he says.
There is no definitive single source of external advice CIOs should use. You need a broad outlook, and the openness to seek advice from many quarters.
As the former FTSE 100 CIO – now turned consultant – says: "Even though I thought I was very open to ideas as a CIO, the moment I stepped away from the corporate shackles I found so many other possibilities that I’d not dreamed of.