IT Governance is Crucial to Success of CIOs

Effective governance reduces turf battles and promotes cooperation.

by / April 13, 2008

Hang around me for long, and you'll hear me say that you gain control by giving it away. You might be surprised to hear that from a self-proclaimed (and recovering) control freak. While it's not intuitive, it makes perfect sense. IT leaders who implement governance actually gain control of their IT-related duties and shed tasks that should belong to others. In addition, they can move away from battling for control and toward working cooperatively.

CIOs sometimes hesitate to implement IT governance because they fear losing control of their responsibilities. During my public-sector career, I did not use governance effectively - fear of ceding control was certainly a factor. Now that I fully understand the benefits and have witnessed the results, I realize it's a top priority and should be addressed upfront.

Halfhearted efforts, such as establishing a steering committee that monitors IT progress or reviews IT-related requests case-by-case, aren't enough. The goal of IT governance is to correctly match decision-making bodies with various decision-making areas. These areas include investment decisions, project priorities, how IT is used (aka IT principles) and service levels. It places responsibility for these areas where it should be - in the hands of the organization's leadership.

Now when I help my clients implement IT governance, I see the benefits firsthand. They include shrinking your IT department's to-do list, achieving IT/business alignment, putting teeth into policies and standards, and focusing departments on business needs rather than technology. My work life would certainly have been smoother had I set up governance to address these issues instead of trying to handle them all myself.

The greatest area of interest often is identifying IT investments, i.e., which IT-related projects should move to the top of a priority list for approval and funding. This decision-making area requires a participatory approach that ensures each department is represented equally. A small IT organization's investment board may include the entire leadership team: the CEO, department heads and the CIO. In larger organizations, a representative approach might be needed to keep the number of participants to no more than 11 people. An odd number works best to prevent ties during voting.

A to-do list can then be written when available resources are applied to the resultant list of priorities. Additionally IT no longer has to say "no" to project requests; instead requests are vetted through the governance process.

Governance is key to better IT/business alignment. The increased interaction between IT and the business departments that results from the process, coupled with leadership's determination of priorities, ensure that IT understands and focuses on the organization's priorities and goals. IT no longer needs to guess which initiatives are most important or react to the squeaky wheel.

IT governance is also about adopting policies and standards. Many IT organizations battle to achieve compliance for policies and standards that are nevertheless well thought out and reasonable. When the leadership team adopts them, it elevates and gives them teeth since they become the organization's policies and standards instead of just rules that one department head tries to impose upon another.

Often IT leaders complain that non-IT staff worry too much about the technology and not enough about trying to understand their own business processes and needs. The good news is that, implemented correctly, IT governance diverts departments from their obsession with specific technologies, especially if governance accompanies strategic planning. It takes time, but IT governance results in non-IT folks focusing on business processes and needs, as well as the entire organization's needs, letting IT concentrate on the technologies required to address them.

Settling disputes and considering exceptions to the organization's standards and policies is also important. In most organizations without IT governance, disputes and exceptions turn into win-lose battles that are usually won by the most powerful department head. This approach leads to inconsistencies, hard feelings and power struggles. Airing these issues through the governance process leads to more factual decision-making and exposes bad actors.

Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas