CIO Priorities: Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

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Seven Major Projects CIOs Should Consider During the Next Three Years

Every once in a while I share a less-than-flattering anecdote about myself to illustrate a point. (Rest assured I keep the worst of them to myself.) So here goes: My 9-year-old son is trying to get me to stop referring to his stuff as "crap," as in "Could you please move all of this crap off the couch?" His usual response: "It's not crap, and I wish you'd stop calling it that!" He's right, of course. But knowing that hasn't made it easier for me to break this bad habit.


I don't really mean to sound negative about his pile of rocks, sticks, Silly Bands, unsharpened pencils and half-filled notebooks. I see them as part of the larger clutter problem at my house. I focus on them because I think they are one of the areas that can be cleaned up most readily, and I hope that methodically clearing away these piles will result in a less chaotic whole. Still, that's not what I'm conveying to my son. He's hearing that his possessions don't matter to me, and that I don't want to have to deal with them.


Similarly, I bet technology executives participating in a McKinsey global survey on business technology didn't mean to sound insular when they made reducing IT costs their number-one IT priority for the next budget cycle. Their business counterparts, in contrast, ranked reducing IT costs as their third priority, after improving effectiveness of business processes (providing additional or better capabilities) and improving cost efficiency of business processes. (Those things were No. 3 and No. 2, respectively, for the tech execs.)


Business executives also ranked giving managers information to support planning and decsion making higher than IT executives, at No. 4. The IT execs put ensuring compliance with regulations in their No. 4 spot. Both groups ranked creating new products or services, managing risk and entering new markets in the same order.


Consultant Brenda Michelson's response on her elemental links blog:


Business is resetting their expectations. In a good way. IT needs to reset their agendas, and quick.


Michelson isn't the only one who worries that IT pros remain more concerned with immediate IT issues than with broader business goals. Earlier this year I wrote about a Diamond Management & Technology Consultants survey in which three-quarters of respondents said the CIO's primary innovation role was to improve business processes (50 percent) or IT processes (25 percent). Far fewer respondents said the CIO's role was to create innovation designed to improve customer service, reach new customers or create new products/services. CIO Dashboard blogger Chris Curran, wrote that CIOs' perceived focus on internal vs. external activities "has got to have some impact on the priorities, the requirements and the resulting designs."


I'm willing to give IT executives the benefit of the doubt. But I think this is another case where, like me, they need to realize the impact their words may have on others.


Last month I shared a comment made by Bob Ashford, vice president of information technology for coffee manufacturer Massimo Zanett, during a panel discussion at the Midmarket CIO Forum. When asked a question about project planning with "the business," Ashford responded by relating an anecdote about his coworkers, "not the business because we are part of the business as well." I think coworkers conveys the right message, one that's certainly not clear when referring to IT staff as "IT" and other employees as "the business." I wrote:


I like that. I think referring to IT pros as "IT" and other business people as "the business" reinforces barriers at companies where relations between IT and the business (hard habit to break) are strained and could even create them at companies where relations are generally good.