Learning to fly

10 Oct 2007

Is your business struggling to make its technology really drive innovation? A strong CIO has the power to drive that change and make a difference.

Chief information officers may not be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive or be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but a checklist of an ideal CIO’s abilities reads suspiciously like a superhero’s CV.

In a recent report, the industry analyst Gartner defined the IT leader of the future as one who can champion change, spur innovation, unify employees across business units and act as a role model.

“The job of the CIO, quite simply, is very difficult. Every CIO has to make it up as they go along – there isn’t any best practice and there aren’t so many tools to help a CIO be successful,” said Martin Curley, who wants to do something about it.

To stretch the superhero analogy further, you could even say Curley has a dual identity. By day he is global director of IT innovation and research at Intel, managing a network of IT Innovation Centres.

But he also has another role as a driver for change in IT management. He has written a book Managing Information Technology for Business Value and is co-director of the Innovation Value Institute.

This consortium operates from NUI Maynooth and has wide cross-industry backing with 40 members including Google, Chevron, BP and analyst houses like the Butler Group and IDC.

IVI’s grand vision is to transform the way organisations get value from IT through researching, developing and disseminating an academically proven and industry validated best practice model for IT.

This way, it hopes to give CIOs and IT managers the tools they need to start creating business value from strategically investing in information technology.

At a seminar held at the Maynooth campus this summer, Curley summed up the premise of the IVI as follows: “Business value is the contribution IT makes to helping an organisation achieve its business objective.”

Outside experts endorsed the work of the IVI. IT governance expert Peter Weill of MIT welcomed its developments because they promise to be far broader than the narrow frameworks that exist today, such as ITIL or COBIT.

Ralf Dreischmeier, vice-president with the strategy consulting firm BCG, said his organisation was committed to making it an industry standard. “We’re looking to find the right balance between academia and practicality — that we’re delivering something people can use,” he said.

That’s for the future. The challenge is that many organisations currently struggle to come close to capturing or managing true value from their IT investments.

Hardly a week goes by without new evidence showing up the gulf between IT and the business it’s meant to support.

A survey from IBM earlier this year found just 16pc of chief information officers (CIOs) felt that technology potential is really benefiting their companies’ development, despite broad agreement that IT permeates their organisations in a very profound way.

Almost 80pc of those surveyed believed that the integration of technology and business was very important but only 45pc felt that their company had made a good job of it. Data from Microsoft reaches broadly similar conclusions.

As Curley observes, there are just a handful of companies where IT is seen as a core competency and not simply a cost centre — Wal-Mart and Dell being two rare examples of the former.

In too many cases, the majority of IT budgets are tied up in routine tasks like maintenance — upwards of 80pc in some cases. Becoming a more mature IT organisation means going past this, putting in place more rigorous governance structures and processes. “It’s not what you spend but how you manage it,” said Curley.

Another speaker, Professor Joe Peppard, director of the information systems research centre at Cranfield University, said the dominant orthodoxy considers IT as an island within the business rather than one that stretches out across every part of an organisation.

“In 25 years’ time, we’ll be saying ‘can you believe people thought IT wasn’t part of the business’?”

Alluding to the debate about whether a CIO should be a generalist or a technology specialist, Peppard also argued that much of the knowledge required to build an information systems strategy lies in the business, not in the IT department. “IS competencies are not about technology, but people,” he said.

The IVI wants to establish a framework underpinned by two core themes: IT Value and IT Innovation. To that end, it hopes to propose methodologies, tools and practices that will allow organisations to manage their IT capability.

Initially, the consortium’s work will focus on two areas: developing and gathering support for the IT Capability Maturity Framework (IT-CMF) and the IT Capability Maturity Model (IT-CMM). Curley said the group plans to publish “something that we hope will be of use to the CIO community” some time next year.

He describes it as a “compass for CIOs” – a roadmap of best practices that have been show to work in other companies or public sector organisations.

But the benefits are there to be grasped. Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found organisations that truly embrace technology tend to be the leading performers in their fields.

So for CIO’s, it’s just a matter of taking the first few steps, or perhaps more appropriately, learning to fly.

By Gordon Smith