Is CIO the Right Person to Champion Process Improvement?

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IT Business Edge blogger Mike Vizard kicked off a post yesterday with a statement that should be printed on shirts, plaques, posters, bumper stickers, shot glasses and what-have-you, with all of the swag marketed to CIOs:

The trouble with IT has very little to do with information technology and everything to do with the process chaos that's rampant in business.

Reading that, some CIOs might want to do chest bumps with Vizard. It's hard to have strategic IT without tying it to process-improvement efforts. He quotes Doug Mow, senior vice president of marketing for Virtusa, an IT services and business-process consulting firm, who says organizations will never be able to eliminate outdated, redundant and just plain unneeded applications and infrastructure until they appoint a chief process officer.


I've written about this idea several times. It's hard to argue against the need for a chief process officer. Yetmany organizations do not designate a specific function for process improvement. What's less clear is who is best positioned to fill this role. Vizard writes it "may be the chief operating officer or even the CIO."


I think a good case can be made for the CIO. Because IT touches the entire business, the CIO has a high-level, cross-functional view of the organization shared by few other executives. IT also tends to have more hands-on experience modeling and mapping processes than other areas of the business. CIOs clearly recognize the need for process improvement. They named business process improvement their top priority for 2010 in Gartner's annual survey.


When IT Business Edge blogger Loraine Lawson interviewed Kiran Garimella, author of "The Power of Process: Unleashing the Source of Competitive Advantage," way back in 2006, he suggested smart CIOs should reposition themselves as chief process officers and focus on adopting a technology platform that facilitates the integration of business processes with enterprise applications. The resulting process-oriented environment would free a company's employees from dwelling on non-essential information and allow them to focus on the areas that can boost competitive advantage.


Of course, not everyone thinks the CIO is well-equipped to take the lead on process improvement. Some CIOs shy away from this kind of a role, Jeanne Ross, director of the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) at MIT and co-author with Peter Weill of "IT Savvy," told me when I interviewed her last summer. It will take a confident CIO to step in. She added:

An IT person has to see this and believe they really have something to offer. A lot of IT leaders see it and mumble about it, but they don't quite have the conviction they have something valuable to give the business. So they step back and say, "I need to know more about your process." They wait to follow when they could be effective leaders.

Samir Gulati, vice president of marketing for business process management software provider Appian, is another believer that a CIO or other senior IT executive is the right person to champion BPM throughout an organization. Business leaders tend to focus narrowly on the needs of their own divisions and opt for point solutions, he said when I interviewed him recently.


Because he or she possesses the high-level, cross-functional view I mentioned earlier, a CIO can help organizations identify multiple processes that would benefit from BPM, Gulati told me. He said it will be far easier for companies to attain a clear return on investment from BPM if they apply it to as many processes as possible.