Why We Need More IT Leadership, Not Less

IT is getting easier to use but harder to manage. If CFOs without significant IT experience find themselves responsible for IT, their best days wil...
Susan CrammJune 4, 2012

Have you heard the latest?  The CFO is the new CIO.  In some companies, CFOs are assuming responsibility for IT.   These companies have decided that IT development and delivery can be decentralized across the various business units and functions. The CFO, they believe, can provide the necessary central coordination to ensure that IT-enabled investments generate value and that IT is operating in a cost-effective, high quality, and secure manner.

Don’t even think about it.  Exploiting technology is a full-time job best guided by a seasoned pro.  Case in point:  in my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work both as a CIO and a CFO.  But with 13 years of IT experience versus 2 years of finance before I assumed my C-level roles, my best day as a CFO wasn’t all that good.  And, for CFOs cast into the CIO role without significant IT experience, their best days will be just as bad.

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Technology may be getting easier to use, but managing IT is getting harder for four important reasons:

  • There is an increased urgency for IT-enabled capabilities. The consumer is empowered and the world is flat.  Loyal patrons are visiting your stores to get smart about the products they are going online to buy.  Only the paranoid and fearless will survive.  Slow-go IT is no-go IT.
  • There are endless possibilities for exploiting IT. But all this opportunity can be a little scary, and it makes prioritization far more difficult.  The only safe harbor is focusing on opportunities the make sense from the point of view of the customer. Internally focused initiatives need not apply.
  • Existing resources are tapped out. Demand for IT outstrips supply by at least two to one. There are more project starts than completions. Everyone is too busy and getting less, not more, done because of the inefficiency inherent in juggling too many projects.  Getting the most out of scarce resources is a function of staging both project starts (so that there aren’t more projects going on than there are people who can focus on them) and project funding (to encourage iterative delivery and ensure that funding can be shifted to the most promising opportunities).
  • Technology is everywhere. Your employees are buying what they want and using it for work.  Access to your company is traveling around in everybody’s briefcase, purse, and pocket.  But despite the fact that they’re using all these new, powerful devices, your employees are still digital-innocents and the hackers are working 24/7 to take advantage of them and your company.   The challenge is to figure out how to run IT securely without becoming the IT-TSA, with long lines, unhappy employees and patrons, and questionable efficacy.

To work through these challenges, we need more leadership, not less, in and out of IT, at every level of the organization. 

Executives need to get personally invested in the IT that fuels their businesses.  In a survey I conducted of more than 100 business leaders, I found it rather shocking that more than 75% considered themselves “IT dumb” and admitted they didn’t know how to use their systems and made “half-baked requests” from IT. 

We don’t really need executives to blog, friend, or tweet, but we do need them to understand how their current IT capabilities stack up against the competition; how IT-enabled changes to business processes and information could enhance the customer experience; and what it means to sponsor a project, drive IT adoption, and realize value from IT-enabled investments.  It’s time (actually way past time) for executives to assume personal accountability for understanding and managing IT and to cascade digital accountability and authority down through their organizations by incorporating IT-smarts in job descriptions and hiring criteria.

Frontline employees (who work directly with the customer or support those who do) need to become much more engaged in innovating with IT.  They need to leverage their insight about what works (and what doesn’t) and discover how to exploit existing and new technology to benefit the customer.

IT leaders need to provide a different kind of leadership than they have provided in the past.  Since it is impossible for the 5% (or so) employees in IT to satisfy all the technology needs of the other 95%, IT needs to transition from delivering IT to the organization to delivering IT through the organization by enhancing self-sufficiency and innovation.

To promote self-sufficiency, IT needs to help employees help themselves by providing new tools and changing some rules.  For example, instead of trying to control every device, IT should focus on ensuring safe and secure access to company applications and information through bring-your-own-device programs and virtualized desktop software.  Instead of trying to control every purchase, IT should vet and approve IT vendors.  Instead of trying to manage every project, IT should certify project-management capabilities. According to my research, CIOs estimate that 25% of IT’s current workload could and should be done by the rest of the organization.

To promote innovation, IT needs to reach outside its own organization to connect with and support the 30% or so innovators within who are wired to figure out a better way.  They need to be connected, respected, and challenged.   Frontline employees need to be connected to customers and to one another.  They need tools that will allow them to resolve issues, communicate common problems, gain insights from others as to possible resolutions, and experiment with changes.  Their efforts need to be recognized and celebrated so that others can learn and jump on the innovation bandwagon.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that IT needs a better leader rather than better leadership.  IT organizations are not broken: they are maturing.  IT is no longer simply an organization; it’s now an organizational asset.  Don’t take your CIO’s place; partner with him to elevate and expand IT leadership by increasing IT-smarts, accountability, and authority across the company.

Susan Cramm is an executive coach and president of Valuedance, an executive-coaching and leadership-development firm specializing in information technology. She is a former CIO and CFO, and is the author of The 8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT (Harvard Press). Susan can be reached at