Everyone likes to give New Year’s advice to CIOs. But why does it all sound the same, so academic and so old? Are Gartner, McKinsey, IDC, ZDNet, & EY academics, practitioners, mimics or lost time travelers? And why are they missing the point entirely? CIOs should tend to the fields, not the skies – unless they’re extraordinarily bored, talented or about to get fired, which makes them ready for retirement or another assignment altogether.
First, Why Do They Write This Way?
Gartner loves to use words like “modularity,” “composability,” and “orchestration.” Does anyone over there understand that CIOs and CTOs don’t think this way? I’ve never heard a CIO tell me they need to focus more on “modularity” and “composability” so they can “orchestrate” more effectively. CIOs are not maestros. They’re crisis managers. Words like “modularity” and “composability” are abstractions that I assume someone inferred by reading a survey where respondents spent a few minutes answering some questions and describing some things on their minds. But it’s not how CIOs in the trenches talk.
McKinsey has its share of abstractions for sure, but their 2022 advice to CIOs has some “make or break” priorities that CIOs must get done in six months! (OMG, what happens if they fail?) But these make-or-break priorities are old platitudes, including “know your customer,” focus on cloud delivery and good application development, become fast learners and worry about security and data quality. What’s new here? Absolutely nothing. I’ve heard the same priorities for decades. Incredibly, McKinsey states that “detailed conversations with dozens of CIOs and CEOs over the past year as well as analysis of recent research have highlighted how the IT mission is both changing and needs to change.” The six areas they identify are anything but new. In fact, they’re old as hell. The Enterprisers Project notes that CIOs in 2022 should focus on cybersecurity, strategic alignment and staffing – just like we did in 2002. ZDNet tells CIOs that they should (my reactions are in parentheses):
- Assume responsibility for new business areas (yes … nothing new here)
- Take customer experiences to the next level (sure, but how, and with what organizational support?)
- Sell technology as a value generator (“the business value of technology” is a phrase that’s been written at least a million times)
- Proceed with care as you adopt automation (as you try to adopt any emerging technology)
- Shape the IT department of the future (yes, since the future is coming)
- Manage data, security and governance effectively (yep, again and again and again)
- Start exploring quantum computing use cases (why?)
- Think about how the Metaverse will expand (OMG – while servers are crashing?)
- Don’t take your eyes off cloud-computing trends (absolutely, positively, for twenty years: remember application service providers [ASPs] when it all started?)
- Make sustainability a core business priority (if it sounds great during an earnings call, why not?)
- “Through 2026, 65% of CIOs will sustain a cycle of tech-based empowerment, agility, and resilience through collaborative governance, new service delivery models, and a business outcomes orientation. (Governance is the power struggle the field has endured for decades.)
- “By 2023, 60% of CIOs will be primarily measured for their ability to co-create new business models and outcomes through extensive enterprise and ecosystem-wide collaboration. (Otherwise known as “alignment.”)
- “By 2025, 75% of CIOs and CFOs will be forced to accelerate or enact formal technical debt management practices due to project delays or failures caused by unresolved technical debt. (Technical debt is like the national debt. How many CIOs manage their budgets with explicit refence to technical debt – which is impossible to estimate? And given the percentage of technology projects that fail, technical debt is an inevitable outcome of the technology investments all companies make. Everyone lives with it – even if the term itself is misleading, which actually refers to the costs of incompetence and modernization – ills that have different cures)
- “By 2026, 85% of organizations whose data practices inhibit their business and operating strategies will empower CIOs to lead cross-enterprise investments in data governance, quality, and compliance. (Data quality? Father time just woke up.)
- “By 2024, 40% of CIOs will fail to effectively evolve IT’s capability to deliver modern digital infrastructures, provide ecosystem tech governance, and support architecture-driven business outcomes. (OK, this means that 40% of CIOs will fail to keep the trains running on time – like that’s something new.)
I just want to know how they distinguish 50% from 60%.
“… but a new type of CIO is emerging. Until recently the typical role of a CIO was focused primarily on managing technology stacks and business enablement. But 96% of CIOs surveyed in 2021 confirmed that their role is now expanding beyond traditional IT responsibilities. To what extent may be decisive in the success of your organization’s transformation plan. What’s required to thrive is a transformative CIO – one who can manage complex ecosystems, collaborate and co-create with other C-suite partners, use knowledge of emerging tech trends to inform the direction of enterprise strategy and build new innovative capabilities to drive revenue growth. Ensuring that the CIO in your organization is a co-architect of business transformation, not just digital transformation, is more essential than ever.”
This observation has been made every year since Y2K angered everyone in the C-Suite (and the world), and I’m sure will be made every year until the CIO position itself is diminished or eliminated.
- Foster business alignment
- Embrace revenue responsibility
- Promoting digital literacy
- Cultivate an agile and adaptive IT ops model
Not sure how outsized this role actually is.
Priorities in the Trenches
How many decades have we been talking about alignment, the changing role of the CIO and business technology strategy? There’s absolutely nothing new about the advice thrown at CIOs year after year, decade after decade.
But can we be honest about the life of CIOs in the trenches? The vast majority of CIOs spend most of their time on operational technology issues, problems and crises – not digital strategy, in spite of all the invitations from pundits to do so. They talk a good game about disruption and innovation, but strategy only happens when the SaaS, PaaS and IaaS vendors are all humming along with no issues. Which means that strategy takes a backseat to operations almost every day. Vendor management, multi-cloud/ hybrid cloud management, people management, C-Suite briefings – you name it – it’s all part of a day in the life of a 21st century operational CIO.
Escape Plans for Some, But Not Most, Which Is the Way It Should Be
CIOs have a choice to make. Stay in the trenches – where most of them should remain – or plan their escape. Why stay? I don’t know, maybe it’s because it’s the world they know. Enablement is noble: there’s no reason for CIOs to abandon the trenches unless they’ve absolutely, positively had enough, unless they’ve always aspired to digital strategy (which probably means they’re mediocre or poor operational technologists) or because they’re about to be fired for delivering a less-than-adequate operational infrastructure, applications and security. But the CIO role is changing, just not in the way the pundits describe. The new challenge for CIOs is not digital strategy, but how to manage commoditized cloud delivery options.
For those who want or need to escape, they need to leave it all behind – because operational technology and digital strategy are toxic together. They should never be mixed, which is a mistake the field has made across two centuries. Digital strategy is not – and never has been – an extrapolation from operational readiness.
Advice for 2022
Henry Picard, one of the country’s leading professional golfers, tells Ben Hogan that he probably … [+] could make a better shot if he changed his grip a bit. Advice personified.
Since anyone can offer advice to CIOs, here’s some:
- Look in the mirror. Are you an operational CIO – comfortable with infrastructure, applications, data bases, cybersecurity and cloud delivery – or are you more qualified (and motivated) to define new business processes and whole new business models? Answer honestly. If you’ve lived in the trenches for more than 5 years, chances are you’re operational and not strategic.
- Operational CIOs need to become proficient with all flavors of cloud delivery. The only meaningful SLAs are cloud SLAs and the only meaningful performance metrics are cloud metrics. Understand everything there is to know about multi-/hybrid-cloud deployments, containers, container management and cloud cybersecurity.
- Only pay attention to the emerging technologies that can contribute to operational effectiveness. Ignore the ones that are exciting but likely to contribute very little to infrastructure, applications, data bases or cloud delivery. The Metaverse falls into the exciting category, but low-code and no-code development fits squarely in your wheelhouse.
- If you decide (with evidence) that you’re a digital strategist hiding in operational clothes, then plan your escape. But make sure that your commitment and talents are real, that you know about digital strategic planning processes, scenarios, business models, adjacent markets and competitive analyses, and are capable of thinking systemically with a touch of design thinking as well. You better be an abstractor capable of converting trends like the Future of Work and the 4th Industrial revolution into disruptive processes and models for your company and perhaps even your entire industry. Make no mistake, the operational technology and digital strategy worlds have nothing in common.
- If you’re escaping, push for a full transfer away from headquarters and especially the department of the CIO. Operational thinking will infect digital strategy every time. So get vaccinated, practice social distancing and if necessary wear a mask.
Happy New Year.