CIOs: How you can change the business

IT is vital to the success of any major business but before its potential can be realised, other factions within the business...

IT is vital to the success of any major business but before its potential can be realised, other factions within the business must be convinced of its importance.

Businesses thrive on the smart use of technology. The challenge for the CIO is to engage colleagues effectively to reach common views about what is and is not possible. This is easy to say but often difficult to achieve.

Speak the same language
We all know of companies whose management teams are "on message" in using technology as an integral part of overall business strategy. They gain a clear advantage in the marketplace because the CIO is working as a key member of the team. The positive dialogue within the team and willingness to embrace new ideas can be a powerful force carrying the company forward.

In other companies the CIO finds it much more difficult to communicate on the same wavelength with other colleagues. At a time of economy and budget constraints, the fact that the cost of technology continues to grow as it increasingly underpins company operations can sour attitudes towards the CIO.

This is not helped by the fact that large parts of this investment are not well understood (mopping up legacy and the outfall from mergers and acquisitions, ensuring technology consistency across the organisation, putting in place effective resilience measures, and so on).

Hence the "black art" and "money pit" analogies which management often apply to IT. It is very easy to move from this to a suspicion that the IT department is made up of individuals only concerned with serving their own interests.

Don't expect to be trusted before you deliver
Successfully aligning IT strategies with business objectives goes much further than coming up with some great ways of using technology to achieve revenue growth. It starts with successful delivery of operational IT services. Nobody is going to listen to ideas for the future from people who cannot deliver the present.

Fundamental to thinking about appropriate IT strategies is an understanding of the culture of the company - what is its underlying style/approach? Devolved companies find it very difficult to opt for strategies that require a consistent approach across the whole business. Highly structured companies will find flexible local investment for business gain difficult and so on. If there is a magic opportunity that requires an approach that goes against company culture, be ready for a tough challenge convincing colleagues!

Big bang approaches are sometimes unavoidable, but wherever possible the phased development of carefully piloted systems that build into a technology-enabled company makes much more sense. This may take place over a considerable period of time with lessons being learnt along the way on what works and what does not. While the direction will probably remain consistent the detail of its delivery may well evolve significantly over time.

The days of the IT department responding in a passive way to business needs are past. Technology is now leading the way in many companies, facilitating approaches and building on opportunities that would simply not be possible without it.

Driving the business forward
This gives CIOs a very exciting and critically important challenge in terms of leadership. They must have, not only a sound grasp of the business drivers and the likely impact of technology upon them, but also excellent communication skills and powers of persuasion to carry colleagues with them.

Each individual will approach the challenge in a different way that reflects a combination of personal style and cultural understanding. Whatever the approach, it is vital to engage colleagues in a way that carries relevance in business terms. The technology is for the CIO to fix without resorting to extended debate in the boardroom.

John Handby is chief executive at CIO Connect

Read more on Managing IT and business issues