A Time for Doing the Small Things Well

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OK, so let me come right out and speak my piece—this isn't the most exciting time to be a technology executive, is it?

OK, so let me come right out and speak my piece—this isn't the most exciting time to be a technology executive, is it?

Every profession goes through phases, and this is a particularly lousy one for the people who make their living setting and executing technology strategy at large companies.

It's lousy because many information executives are under scrutiny now that their Internet projects have fallen flat and all their three-letter initiatives (CRM, ERP, and so on) are under-delivering. And it's lousy because the bursting of the technology bubble has had a direct impact far beyond Silicon Valley: Most big companies are laying off software developers and other technical workers as they delay or cancel nonessential projects. For technology executives who had gotten used to thinking of themselves as the change agents of the 1990s, the sudden skepticism about what they do isn't fun.

But the new sense of technology's limits does not need to be a career-damaging thing; indeed, adaptable executives should see it as an opportunity to redefine the roles of technology managers in their organizations. Still, if it's an opportunity, it's the sort of opportunity one overlooks at one's peril, as Michael J. Earl, a prominent thinker on technology issues, suggested to me in a recent telephone conversation.

"What's happened over the last few months is that CIOs are being forced to get back to basics again," said Earl, a professor of information management at the London Business School, whose 1994 article, "Is Your CIO Adding Value?" in MIT's Sloan Management Review articulated a set of concerns that continues to preoccupy corporate boards today. "The whole mentality of 'Let's rethink our business strategy' has been put on the back burner. The delivery thing has taken over—the usual stuff about getting projects done on time and on budget."

It may sound prosaic, this idea of delivering on the basics, but sometimes it's the simple things that need doing.

Nobody thought much of Lou Gerstner when he arrived at IBM in 1993 and gruffly observed, "The last thing IBM needs is a vision." But eight years and $125 billion in increased stock-market value later, Gerstner's rejection of the idea that he personally needed to be an oracle looks awfully shrewd.

Like the shirt-sleeved Gerstner, chief information officers today need to set aside their desire to be seen as visionary strategists and focus instead on delivering tangible internal value.

Earl's 1994 article offers a prescription for this, too: He urges CIOs to develop a thorough understanding of their companies' businesses—mostly through networking with CEOs and other senior executives—and to use that knowledge to bring a new focus to their companies' technology investments. What this leads to is a situation, as Earl wrote, where "there are no IT strategies, only business strategies."

These days, Earl says he's starting to see CIOs adopt a more realistic view of what they can accomplish within their organizations. One sign is an emerging organizational structure in which the CIO gives up some authority by bringing on a chief technology officer who focuses on infrastructure and delivery, thus leaving the CIO himself free to set strategy. "CIOs of very large corporations are pretty relaxed about splitting the job into two," Earl told me. "They may not be very good at assessing which side they belong on, but they're not upset at giving up the empire. It's become really a mega-job."

In any event, the disillusionment with technology as a driver of business strategy will not last forever. The pendulum will shift again—when the economy picks up, when wireless or broadband reach critical mass, or when some less predictable form of discontinuous change kicks in, á la the Web in 1995. Until then, nose to the grindstone.

This article was originally published on 2001-12-10
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