Strategy clinic: Consult the experts

I am an IT director reporting to a finance director who sits on the board. I do not believe he represents IT in the best way, or...

I am an IT director reporting to a finance director who sits on the board. I do not believe he represents IT in the best way, or understands the key issues. I see an increasing number of CIOs and IT directors now attaining board-level status, but my boss will have none of it, because, I suspect, he wants to protect his own position. What can I do?

The solution:
Paul Williams, Arthur Anderson

The sheer pervasiveness of IT and its crucial role in supporting and enabling the achievement of business objectives makes it less relevant for it to report to any one function. The ideal status and reporting lines for IT will vary from one organisation to another depending upon many factors including, perhaps most importantly, the extent to which IT enables the business. Organisation size and IT spend will also be factors.

A key principle of sound IT governance is the need for boards of directors to properly understand how IT should be, and actually is, enabling the business. This will be achieved only if IT is regularly on the board agenda - not just at budgeting time. Even if you are not on the board you should be seeking opportunities, at least annually, to deliver a personal presentation to it on IT matters.

You should seek opportunities to talk direct to the chief executive and other board members to get their perceptions on how IT is enabling the business. In this way you will begin to gain their confidence. This should not be seen as an attempt to work around your current boss but he or she should understand that finance is only one customer for IT and you need a direct line to all other business functions. Encouraging a regular dialogue will help you to ensure that you and your team are delivering the IT that the business needs.

Roger Marshall, Elite
This is either a hoary old chestnut or a hot potato, depending on one's taste for such questions. And although those of the chestnut persuasion might moan, we cannot deny that chestnuts are used for stuffing, stuffing goes in turkeys and turkeys that vote for Christmas get all they deserve.

Personally my advice would be to demonstrate to all concerned, from the chief executive downwards, the excellence of your service and of the strategic advice you give. In other words, accentuate the positive and don't get hung up on the negative. In an ideal world boards would admit to their number those who are the true strategic leaders and visionaries among top management, irrespective of job titles. They will also make informed decisions on which service delivery heads need to be on the board, depending on the nature of the business.

The real world doesn't quite live up to the ideal, of course. Remember, however, that your position could be a lot worse. Finance directors tend to be powerful figures in any organisation, you may be better off reporting to the finance director than any other board member and when things go wrong, as occasionally they do in the best-run IT departments, you may need a powerful voice to defend your position and take a share of the responsibility.

Dodson Fogg, Certus member and a global expert in IT management and human development
There are two possible routes to success. First, if the financial director does not get your point, there is probably little to be gained by arguing the toss with him. The next step is to examine the calibre of the chief executive and his relationship with the finance director. If the chief executive is not a total reactionary or a disciple of the finance director there may be some mileage in seeking a discussion with him or her, after first informing the finance director in broad terms that you need to discuss future strategy with the chief executive. If you achieve a one-to-one with the chief executive, put your case and make sure that he sees the concept as bringing business benefit.

Whatever the outcome, ensure that the finance director is clear that his performance as de facto head of IT is not seen in a bad light, and that he doesn't see you as a threat to his security or position. If this process is halted a confident IT manager may well feel able to say that he must consider his position.

If none of this works, try route two. If you have your own budget it will be easier. Organise an external consultant to do a short study of the IT department's organisation or business processes. The aim is to have the consultant give a presentation to the chief executive which proves beyond doubt that the IT department must have a director on the board.

The figures presented will prove that the company will spiral into uncompetitive penury unless you are on the board. For the sake of verisimilitude ensure that he recommends recycling some toner cartridges, and maybe having a couple of programmers change line managers. The key is to choose the right consultant and this should be within your power.

Their background is less important than their presentational skills. Don't choose a 25-year-old MBA with all the charisma of a dead haddock. Choose a consultant with a statesmanlike appearance who can convince a chief executive or board. You'll be giving them the meat of his text; all they have to do is sell the argument.

Although this advice is light-hearted, the key is that you need to put forward an argument which will ultimately change your position in the food chain. If this is what has prevented you from effectively putting forward that argument, then you must manoeuvre someone into successfully presenting your argument at the correct level.

Also, if your chief executive reads Computer Weekly do ensure that this page is surgically removed before he reads it.

Dr Robina Chatham, lecturer in management information systems, Cranfield School of Management
In a nutshell, you need to develop your political skills. Instead of trying to go through the closed door your boss represents, extend your locus of influence. Develop a broad network of influential contacts and convert them into allies. If you believe you need to present a better image for IT within your company, do it yourself.

John Eary, NCC Skills Source consultancy
Assuming that your motive is not self aggrandisement and you genuinely believe that it is in the company's best interests that you, as IT director, should sit on the board then you must make the business case. Resist the temptation to undermine the finance director, this position is a powerful one and you need allies not enemies.

However if you can convince the board that IT is a valuable business-enabler your views are more likely to be sought directly. You should lobby the board to support a review of IS strategy. The commercial opportunities of e-business may be a useful catalyst - you will need to identify some potential business benefits to gain their interest.

You could write the strategy yourself but you may find it better to commission consultants to conduct an independent study. You should ensure that you are given the opportunity to influence the scope of the review, and make sure the representation of IT is included. If you truly believe that there is a business case for you taking a seat on the board then this is likely to be a recommendation of the consultants' report. Do not promote the idea too strongly yourself, you will have more chance of success if the board or chief executive adopt it as their own idea.

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