I recently attended a gathering of CIOs where the speaker was a former head of Joint Special Operations Command. His remit to detect and eliminate terrorist cells was very clear. His manner was focused and his job had heroic overtones.
As one would expect, he had done his homework and was well prepared for this speaking mission. But then it struck me that his reconnaissance was somewhat flawed. And it was just a little slip that gave him away.
In building up rapport with the audience, he mistakenly tried to draw parallels with his former world and that of the CIOs. He talked about intelligence, but most revealingly he used a phrase that truly let the cat out of the bag - "You guys being Information Officers will appreciate this..."
Information Officers? That may well be a large part of the job title but it is definitely not a large part of the role of most CIOs. Possibly the General has a skewed version of what being an Information Officer entails? Or perhaps the problem lies with the IT industry, where the IT function acts as more border control than intelligence management?
I reflected on this shocking realisation for a bit and then realised that CIOs do spend a fair amount of time on information management, but mostly on its production rather than consumption. The provision of applications to capture the data and the storage of that data being two main elements of the day job. Often tools are provided to enable the users to have a poke around the data with the goal of eliciting nuggets of information (aka insight or intelligence). The 'I' in CIO thus standing for Information Provision.
You may well be happy enough with that being the extent of your information responsibilities. Given the complexity of many technology estates, to even provide information access in a manner that might reflect reality is a major challenge.
So let's imagine you have been invited to a board meeting. The topic of governance bubbles to the top of the agenda. The CEO directs his focus on the CFO. "Mary, tell us how you have sweated the company's capital this quarter?" Mary goes on to explain that some shares have been bought back, the gilts investment of last year is generating 5% return above libor and the company is now structurally in a position to buy our main competitor. "Thank you Mary. Good work."
You are next. Beads form on your forehead. Your shirt seems to be changing colour from the 'armpits out' in real-time. You are a bright guy, but you are under pressure and the other board members are eyeing you up in a manner that would be recognisable by any chicken who had stumbled across a gathering of foxes.
"Our data centre had 99.995% uptime with record low MTBF and MTTR. The ticket processing velocity is similarly running at a high (when seasonally adjusted) and the new middleware layer has improved our service layer responsiveness significantly."
Like the CFO, the CEO wants you to describe how you have taken the organisation's substantial data asset and converted it into business value. The CxOs are wondering how this seemingly high and random budget figure you request each year gets turned into differentiated customer experiences, enhanced employee engagement and a leaner business model. How you balance all of this in the context of protecting the organisation against the growing threats associated with the digital era would be particularly welcome.
Not unreasonably you will argue that data management/information production is both a tough enough job and the one you were employed to do. Agreed. But the world is moving on, and as the IT function (albeit slowly today) gets sucked into the cloud, the value proposition of your IT function needs to be revisited.
In my view, provision of analytics tools to the various functions around the business is not enough. They are not analysts and to some extent they only want to see the world through their own HR or Marketing lens. The organisation needs someone to take charge of overall intelligence. What are the geopolitical risks that might threaten our growth? How is market sentiment on the social networks correlating with our share price?
Your people may not be analysts in the style of GCHQ or the NSA, but the analytical profile of a typical technologist makes them well suited to transitioning into such a role.
It's not a case of abandoning technology management. You know that without it the business collapses. To switch analogies, you are sitting on an oil field. But managing the crude oil (big data?) is only part of your value proposition. Maybe it's time to acquire one of those big Texan cowboy hats?!
Ultimately would you and your people prefer to spend most of your time splicing cables, replacing memory cards and telling users to reboot their device? Or would you prefer your IT function to look like the ops room of the Counter Terrorist Unit or even NASA? And wouldn't the phrase, "Houston, we have a problem", put you at the centre of the business? And aren't you glad that you bought that hat?