Just what do real CIOs think a real strategy looks like?

'I know it when I see it'

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Strategy in a power vacuum

Some of our ITDMs get landed a new CEO every 18 months which means that keeping strategy in line with the CEO’s vision is a sometimes thing. As several ITDMs pointed out, it’s somewhere between optimistic and naïve in a large firm to expect each division’s needs and ambitions to be usefully synchronised. So we need to be Agile. CEO ejection is just one of the many random events we need to cope with, so the happy end of the round table favoured the approach of continuous refinements and ‘failing quickly’, which certainly can look good on Powerpoints. Conversely the unhappy-end-of-the-table were aghast at the idea of saying to stakeholders enduring dodgy IT infrastructure that the failures will be even quicker.

The ITDMs seemed to aspire to a sort of Nirvana (the Buddhist state, not the band) where the IT was so boring that that radical strategies are more easily accepted, though like so much of this Roundtable, several disagreed because unless there are some faults, it’s hard to engage enough interest.

They do see shiny new tech for the sake of it as a big mistake, which is fine if that decision was always in their hands, but they had tales of “the business” meeting vendors at conferences and coming back with shiny software of no real use to anyone - even if it did work. Their greatest venom was aimed at “collaboration” software, which they all hated, because of the hassle of technical implementation combined with the requirement to change culture and processes for it to be even remotely useful.

A lot of our ITDMs validate their strategy by informal peer-to-peer checking, though they’ve found that this needs to be with those who aren’t in any way in competition. When it was suggested that our charity ITDMs didn’t compete, this was robustly rebutted as apparently the competition is really quite fierce nowadays.


This is the most fashionable of the business buzzwords at the moment - by which I guess they mean the sort of disruption you get on purpose rather than the Volkswagen kind.

We talked of how futile ‘bold strokes’ would be in many types of organization, especially the larger multinationals, with one ITDM referring to them as foam cushions, which would simply spring back to their old shape. The ITDMs gave us a counsel of despair, giving a one-word answer to ‘how do you disrupt a multinational’, replying with variations on “acquisitions”. They particularly liked the continuous disruption model of Cisco, seeing the strategy of always planning to buy in disruption as far more feasible than the trench warfare of forcing change on large firms.

Key to all this is the relationship with the CEO, which these days has got stronger in most firms (yes, the happy end of the table). Many newer firms are resource-like (Uber, AirBnB) and generally cloud-based so an increasing percentage of the firms’ value is in intellectual property realized in IT.

It’s now common for IT to be on the board, or at least some of the boards in very large firms, but the cold dead hand of accountancy with its laser focus on cost reduction regardless of missing opportunities for growth means that trying to come up with improved customer experience or new services is often a waste of time. The finance director will filter according to his narrow agenda and block everything else. This leads to a vicious cycle where the board never hears anything positive from IT so doesn’t think to ask. But elsewhere the ITDMs were enthused that new tech was offering new opportunities, though that isn’t always a good thing. We noted the way that Salesforce and other cloud services are leaking in without planning things like “how do we get the data out afterwards”. The ITDMs likened SF, Office 365 and Google Apps to Oracle where they start cheap and expand easier, then the price goes up and you find yourself subject to a punitive audit for $8m in backdated licences. And yes IT will be blamed even if they had nothing to do with it.

Then there’s the seriously non-disruptive technology: concreted over systems that date back to the 1980s where change would mean doing the equivalent of organ transplants. More than one ITDM described the personal strategy as simply avoid, but if the firm is splitting and you’re running on hardware they don’t make any more that is not an option. So the strategy isn’t really technical at all, it’s PR, and you need to put in straws that make the upgrade and migration actually deliver some visible benefits. That’s easier to say than do since at least half the reason you’re doing the migration is that the system is ever harder to change.

Risk Management

On arrival at a new organization, our ITDMs recommended that you quickly sense what the risk aversion level is locally. Charities came out as the most risk averse, partly because they had less money, but mainly because of the emotional commitment so many people have to even quite small screw-ups where the resources could have saved lives or fed kittens or whatever. Also the mindset for the upside varies, so making a government department bigger is really not usually the name of the game and the Whitehall penchant for silos means that cooperation that involves any risk sharing across functions just ain’t going to happen.

We were particularly taken with the ITDM who’d cynically inserted SAAS into a firm for which it wasn’t suitable at all even slightly, but wanted to get Office 365 on his CV and so had deployed the beast and was now at a rather larger firm. Similar things applied back when Java was new and fashionable and of course if you don’t have SAAS on your CTO CV now, it’s like not believing in outsourcing ten years ago – both fine examples of how personal strategy can’t be ignored in the process.

If we can keep the CEO away from detailed tech, what we need to do is understand the difference in culture and processes now and what he’d like them to be (at this point my relentless use of male pronouns was commented on given that 20 per cent of our ITDMs were female). What did we learn?

  • That plans are not strategies
  • That knowing the appetite for risk is critical to personal success as well as the firm
  • Tech is no different to any other part of the business in needing strategy
  • If you change your strategy every three months it ain’t a strategy, but change it too slowly it won’t work.
  • If you change your strategy every three months it ain’t a trategy, but change it too slowly it won’t work.

And finally that without a clear appraisal of the gaps between what the firm needs and what you can actually deliver, it will end badly. ®

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