The Holistic View

By Phil Garland Print this article Print

The IT organization has to continually lower costs while adding business value. The good news: Smart IT leaders can do both.


What’s common to these “eat your cake and have it too” approaches is their holistic view of IT’s business role. IT is not just an order-taker, not just the “engine room” and not just a technology provider. But neither is it a process or technology dictator. Instead, IT is a key partner and collaborator, one that combines clear-eyed analysis of costs and benefits with a “we’re part of the team” passion for the company’s objectives.

In the companies we’ve seen adopt these approaches, the CIO is viewed as part of the business leadership. But the partnership extends below the CIO: These companies have IT staff in the business units as colleagues, so the IT organization hears of business interests and needs early. Also, the embedded IT staff can help enable, check and shape the explorations of the business staff. In this view, IT becomes a business-skill specialty, just like accounting, marketing and manufacturing.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has coined the term “situational CIO” to describe the leadership approach suited toward managing operations in a cost-optimized way, while bringing real value to the business’s top line. A situational CIO can move among three roles—operations, orchestration (of providers, processes and priorities) and strategy—as needed, without losing the perspective of how IT is helping the business succeed.

For many CIOs, IT operations have become all-consuming, and they fear to let go. But clinging to operations ensures you won’t contribute to the business’s top line, and you won’t be seen as a business leader. Thus, you need the right lieutenants to manage the day-to-day operations so you can delegate the responsibility without worrying about a train wreck.

Of course, you need to stay in touch with your lieutenants so you have a high-level view of IT operations for use in your strategic thinking.  You want to be able to jump in when you need to, but these are situational exceptions to the required delegation.

There’s another downside to clinging to operations: It gives the impression that your operations are fragile or your staff is incapable. If either is the case, chances are you won’t be able to continue finding cost savings while stabilizing operations.

By contrast, a situational CIO can see the big picture, realizing that operational efficiencies open up opportunities for top-line gains and that fulfillment of top-line needs requires technologists who are not mired in the operations.

Operational efficiencies and top-line innovation can reinforce each other: Creative thinking on operational efficiencies in IT can spark ideas for efficiencies elsewhere in the business. This focus can create a culture of creativity among IT staff, who are then better able to participate in the business units’ creative context activities. Also, being a partner with the business units in their exploration of technology-supported innovations can help IT rethink its operational approaches using emerging ideas.

Make no mistake: The situational CIO approach is not easy, and many CIOs might not have all the skills, self-
confidence and passion needed to sustain the necessary active engagement. But many do, and more can gain them.

The operations simply have to work well and efficiently for any CIO to have a hope of being a situational CIO who’s viewed as part of the business. But that’s not the endgame—it’s the starting point.

Phil Garland is a partner in PricewaterhouseCooper’s Advisory practice and serves as the National CIO Advisory Solutions Leader.

This article was originally published on 2011-07-28
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