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A Cornered CIO’s Strategy: Protracted Border Wars With The Business

It is an established fact that between Business and IT, relations are hardly ever harmonious. Moreover, each one endeavors to blame the other when things go wrong and both scramble to take credit when things go right.  When questioned about why Business and IT find it so difficult to get on, claims of being misunderstood is the rallying cry for both departments and often used as the first line of defense to conceal ulterior motives, incompetence and failure.

Interaction between the two departments can vary depending upon the political dynamics of the organization, and the individual personalities of the CIO and CBOs (Chief Business Officers). However, where the relationship is heavily tilted in the favor of the business, IT can find itself in a tough predicament. Continuously flooded with a tsunami of business requests and expected to deliver results in the face of never-ending cost rationalization drives; CIO’s often struggle to meet day-to-day deadlines. Increasingly, CIOs find themselves isolated at the executive level and are coerced to do ‘more with less’. Capitulated and brow-beaten by the business executives, the CIOs dare say no!—for the consequences maybe too grave to contemplate. Gone is the spare time to think about strategy, optimize processes, improve the delivery methodology and lift the morale of over-worked IT workforce. The only recourse left for CIOs is to dream better times and make do with what they have.

CIOs need not to accept this fate. In fact, if they exercise their options correctly, they can turn the tables on the business and move from being viewed as an obstacle to an enabler of business value. But first, the astute CIO must get his/her own house in order. This often implies, finding the time and space to think and act strategically, and to restructure the IT department. This is no mean feat, especially when the business enjoys the upper hand amongst the executive team, and expects IT to deliver to its beckoning call.

An effective course of action is to adroitly manipulate the volume of requests from the business.  This does not imply that the CIO has to look at implementing industry best practice demand management techniques, even though it is essential and part of a long term solution. The immediate requirement is for the CIO to create enough time and space to think strategically and implement important decisions that produce a sea change in the IT landscape and bolster its capability to deliver real value to the business. 

One way to do this is to make the entry point into IT a legitimate choke point for the business i.e. to use business language to increase the time it takes to sign off requirements. Typically, IT requirement teams do not have the mindset or the skills to engage in endless border wars, which are intended to sap the energy in this case of the business units. Yes, the IT requirements management team is staffed with competent business analysts who specialize in low-level business requirements, but more often than not, the business analysts are not considered domain experts by the business and are usually treated with contempt. Moreover, the business analysts are in no position to question business’s ‘holy grail’ i.e. the high-level business requirements.

To reverse this equation, it is important to augment the IT requirements management team with domain experts, who understand the business needs better than the business and have a proven track record of  delivering ‘best in class’ business solutions. In other words, these domain experts must be able to challenge, poke holes and make fun of the business requests (while keeping a straight face of course!). So if Sales, HR and Finance are the biggest requestors (IT’s biggest adversaries) of demand then the IT requirements management team should be staffed with domain experts from these three areas. These experts are charged with the responsibility of delaying the processing of the demand by demonstrating flaws in the business requests and quantifying the cost of these flaws. Subsequently, the business will be forced to listen and take note. In this way, the CIO should be able reduce the business demand to his liking, and at the board level is armed with enough information to shoot down any re-requests or threats.

Oddly enough, by inserting domain experts in the requirements management team, the CIO is able to enrich, and fast-track requests from other business units thereby effectively dividing the business into allies and enemies.  Hence, at executive meetings the CIO is no longer isolated but supported by other business units who value IT’s contribution.

Therefore by making the entry point into IT a legitimate choking point affords the CIO extra time to make radical changes to the IT landscape. The amount of time devoted to strategizing and re-organizing IT depends to a large degree on the quality of the domain experts and their ability to fight ‘border wars’ with different business units. Given the current recession, it is not too difficult to find C-Level executives on short-term contracts playing such intimidating roles.  This short-term strategy is only effective if the CIO can keep the business divided and demonstrate value in rejecting business requests from the most powerful business units.

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Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 18 years’ experience in the IT and Telecommunications industry, specializing in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programs and projects. Currently, he is working as a director of corporate programs for a leading telecoms operator in the MENA region.