In a world where an abundance of technology and information is at our fingertips, it would seem that every CIO would be the most successful in the history of computing. But the reality is that few CIOs meet this gold standard, and there are a number of reasons for this.

For example, what criteria should we use to measure the effectiveness of the CIO? Should we really be focusing on the effectiveness of IT in supporting business objectives, or are there other metrics? These aren’t easy questions, but they do provide a glimpse into the level of complexity associated with the role of information technology and why the CIO’s role is often underappreciated. Can the technology be tamed? Absolutely it can. Though we’ll never take the challenge of the technology out of the enterprise, we can increase the performance of whoever’s got the top IT job by advocating one easy-to-remember tenet:  It is not about the technology.

Granted, in many cases the technology is often the only fun and cool aspect of the job, but let me warn you that this pattern of behavior may lead to unhealthy results -- personally, professionally and organizationally. After all, technology by itself does not contribute to bottom line and sometimes brings more baggage than it’s worth. So if it’s not about the technology, what is it about?

It is about the organization and the people. If technology were really the work force multiplier claimed by sales professionals everywhere, then the CIO wouldn’t need a staff to perform his/her function. However, every successful organization starts with a strong human capital foundation. There is no other way to achieve sustained success. Though there have been plenty of people with published works on the creation and sustainment of an effective work force, I’ve found there are a handful of principles that are key differentiators:

  • Treat people the way you want them to perform, and the way you want to be treated.  From the basics of pay and benefits to the culture and environment of the work-place, don’t take your management practices for granted.
  • Be fair and firm in all aspects of decision-making -- if you can’t explain it, you might reconsider your decision.  
  • Set clear expectations and don’t tolerate non-performance. Just as important is the need to foster the growth of your people -- ensure you’re growing somebody to assume every job, including yours.
  • Foster culture of ongoing learning in every aspect of professional development. Don’t be surprised at the productivity bonus that results from effective training.
  • Finally, foster open and honest, AKA transparent, communications in personnel and business matters. Transparency builds trust, which builds security. An employee won’t remain productive unless they feel secure.

Good CIOs know that success is all about the credibility of IT. The foundation of a credible IT organization and its services is reliable IT operations management. By itself, it falls short of ensuring credibility. By itself, without a doubt, it provides the shortest path to the loss of credibility.

The first building block of credibility is centered upon the alignment of expectations, a way of measuring performance (e.g., success), and a demonstration of results. Eventually, the alignment of expectations will lead to a true understanding of the business (i.e., needs, objectives, processes) and, ultimately, the integration of the business and IT strategy. The most effective measure of a CIO is based on their impact on the core business, not just the IT business. And to impact the business, you must first understand the business.

This brings us to a discussion about the value of IT to the business or mission. This principle starts with the expectation that IT should create business value. The simplest way to operationalize this concept is to be aware of and actively manage the cost and return associated with what people do see (e.g., the applications) and what they don’t (e.g., the infrastructure).

Every aspect of IT has the potential to impact the bottom line. This also means being aware of investments to be sure you’ve maximized the value of the information and technology you already have before investing in more or a different solution. These initial steps are purely foundational, for the key to achieving real value through constant demonstration of success where you’ve shared in the risk and the reward -- no true success will come without both.

Finally, your organization must align to meet the business needs and deliver value consistently. Heroic efforts can get you there, but it takes an organization to sustain performance, including remaining agile to change if the needs dictate.

Then of course, it can also be about the technology. Don’t forget to leverage it when there’s a reasonable business case to do so. Be sure to factor the cost of change on the debit side of the equation, not all of us adapt to change as easily.

This month marks my 30th year in the Defense IT business, supporting enterprise needs at all levels and for all sizes.  When I started in the business, we never used the terms IT and CIO, but there was always somebody in charge, and that job has always been one of the most challenging there is. What is also crystal clear is that the CIO, no matter where that person is aligned in the organization, has become an essential part of each organization’s success.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock