Politics From the IT Engine Room

Like their C-level counterparts, CIOs have their eyes on promotion. Some would like to ascend to a CEO role. Others are fine to remain as CIOs, but they feel IT should have a greater say in the business. How do you get IT to the inner circle executive round table when IT is still perceived as a back office “engine room.”

The first lesson I learned about engine rooms was in childhood. It was while watching the original Star Trek series with Captain Kirk, Chief Science Officer Spock, and Chief Engineer Scotty. Spock and Scotty were of equal rank, but when Kirk had to put someone in charge of the starship Enterprise, it was always Spock. Perhaps this was because Spock was Kirk’s right-hand person on the bridge of the ship, while Scotty was hidden away in the engine room.

Many years later, when I became a CIO, I saw this same scenario play out in real business life.

The best examples were company acquisitions and mergers.

In the nascent stages of these strategic moves, only a select few senior executives — for example, the CEO, the CFO, a board member or two, and the vice presidents of operations, marketing, sales and human resources — were on the “bridge.” They negotiated with the company to be acquired or merged with. They decided who would assume new positions within the new organization, who would be golden-parachuted and what the new organizational structure would look like. They ran the financials, assessed the operational costs and marketing opportunities, and made the decision to acquire or merge, or not to.

When that work was done, the engine room CIO finally got a call. This was the first opportunity that the engine room had to make the decision makers aware of the time and costs that would be needed to integrate and merge business systems and processes. It soon became apparent to everyone that the “on the ground” success of the acquisition or merger would to a large extent depend on how customers of both the acquiring and being acquired companies experienced the seamlessness of blended systems and processes.

At this point, the entire weight of the project fell on the IT engine room, which had not been engaged in the earlier planning process.

As a CIO during a merger, I was determined to change this process. I met with the CEO, the board and some of my C-level colleagues. By then, it was easy for everyone to see the budget overruns and unanticipated work and costs that had been incurred in previous merger   activities because the IT engine room had been left out of the early planning process. Collectively, we altered the process so going forward it would include IT in early planning. Even better, IT began receiving meeting invites to other strategic business meetings.

I’ve talked with other CIOs about this engine room challenge, and there are many who would just as soon remain as IT “doers” and stay away from strategy. The reason they give is that they don’t care for the politics that often accompany being in the inner circle.

However, for many of us who have worn the CIO cap, we increasingly recognize the important role that digitalization is playing within companies. In today’s business environment, it’s indeed possible for a visionary CIO who can produce business results to ascend to a CEO position. He or she can do so in two ways:

  • The CIO can demonstrate chutzpah by assuming a leadership role in a struggling or failing project that no one else wants to touch, and then build that project into something greater than anyone ever imagined.
  • Or, a profitable line of business (and a spinoff company) can be developed from within IT that is based on a particular IT product or service that other organizations will pay for.

Whether or not a CIO aspires to become a CEO, it’s important to take IT out of the engine room and into inner strategic business planning circles, because corporate digital advancement depends on it.

Transforming CIOs and IT into strategic corporate players can be done when CIOs diligently cultivate relationships and open communications with the board, the CEO, and other C-level colleagues. In that way, they can demonstrate consummate knowledge of technology and how it can lift corporate revenues, operations, and the company reputation to new levels.

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