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Why Blog? October 26, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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In a recent article, Andrew Keen opined that CIOs have no business blogging.  His intentionally provocative piece was in response to an opposing view by John Suffolk, who is both a blogger and the UK government CIO.  I’ll presume that Mr. Keen was doing a bit of trolling and forgive him his somewhat grating approach, but he has touched on a question I get asked fairly frequently: “Why do you blog?”

The glib response, of course, is “why not?”  But now that this blog is approaching it’s second birthday, it’s worth a moment of reflection to understand why there might be value in executive (and not just CIO) blogging.

I started blogging as an attempt to informally share my thoughts on IT leadership.  I believe that teaching is an important aspect of leadership.  Rather than subject my team to periodic lectures on effective IT strategy and management, I began capturing my thoughts as blog entries.  Those on my team that were interested could read them; those who were not could ignore them.  While I do get occasional feedback from coworkers, I have no idea as to who reads this blog, or how often. That’s OK with me; if even one person finds value, then the exercise is worth it.

I also thought it was important to experience the technology first-hand.  Since I believe that CIOs should test and evaluate things, I wanted to see what it would be like to produce a blog on a regular basis.  Given the constant discussions of the value (or lack thereof) of social media technology in a corporate environment, having direct exposure makes me a more informed participant in the conversation.

In the course of writing, however, I discovered that there are many other side benefits to blogging:

  • You meet all sorts of interesting people. This is a huge, unexpected, pleasant occurrence. Many people have taken the time to either comment or email me about something I wrote and always teach me something new.
  • It can be clarifying. It really helps to write things down.  Many of my blog postings have allowed me to explore things in unexpected ways and given me insight into issues that I am dealing with.  I’ve found that writing enhances thinking; the opposite is not always the case.
  • It makes you a better writer. Writing is like public speaking: the more you do it, the easier it gets.  You also become very appreciative of those who write well.  Dashing off 500 words is not easy.  Dashing them off on a regular basis can be daunting, but the discipline required to do it builds character.

In the end, perhaps the best reason for blogging is that I enjoy doing it.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and I certainly love my job.  Combining the two seems like a natural fit.  It isn’t for everyone, of course; there seem to be fewer than two dozen blogging CIOs in the world.  That said, if you are at all inclined to write, I suggest you give blogging a try, regardless of your position in the world.  Mr. Keen’s opinions aside, anyone who has something to share should share it.

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Bartholomew Cubbins, Redux September 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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The best part of blogging is what you learn from your readers. My recent post on the role of the CIO generated some outstanding comments extending that conversation in several directions.  Given the thought put into the commentary, I thought I’d use a full post to reply rather than add to the comment stream.  You may want to read the comments that prompted this post before reading further.  It’s OK; I’ll wait.

Now we can go in several directions:

What is the role of the CIO?

Kumud raised the idea of a “classic” CIO that is concerned solely with technology, in contrast with a “contemporary” CIO that is a more engaged business leader.  I understand the distinction but think that a successful CIO is both.  I think a CIO is defined to be “the senior executive who manages an organization that delivers IT-based services in support of the business goals of the company.”  I believe there is a direct parallel with the finance, HR, and legal groups in a company; one can simply replace “IT-based” with the appropriate discipline to create similar roles for these service groups.

As I’ve written before (and in contrast to Kumud) I think that the CIO serves the organization directly, not the customers outside of the organization.  As such, the provided services are used by other organizations to perform their functions effectively.  I also think the services fall into two broad categories: infrastructure and consulting.

Infrastructure is obvious.  No matter what else they do, the CIO needs to keep the lights on.  This used to be the be-all and end-all of our job; we’ve now gotten so good at it that we are moving on to the consultative role.  CIOs know a lot about technology exploitation, business process optimization, and intra-departmental synergies.  CIOs now struggle to get the visibility and opportunity to deliver these “softer” services to the company.

Abbie Lundberg points out that good CIOs are effective in delivering these softer services and should be used in that capacity as much as possible.  I generally agree, but I think we differ in deciding how far a CIO can go in this role.  I am strongly tied to a CIO being a consultant to the true internal business owner; I suspect Abbie would allow a CIO to cross that line.

What about personal and career growth?

Which brings us to the points raised by Susan Mazza and John Charnovich.  How can a person grow and expand their skills if they are in the “box” of a technology-focused CIO?

I am drawing a distinction between the role of a CIO and the individual who fills that role.  The role changes slowly over time, but generally stays unchanged with respect to the organization.  The individual, on the other hand, grows and changes and hopefully contributes more and more to the organization.  How do you rectify a growing individual in a static role?

I think that’s where the consultative part of the job comes in.  CIOs that want to spread their wings and learn more about the business can spend more of their time working with the business (Kumud’s contemporary CIO) and less time keeping the lights on (his classic CIO).  To support Susan, Abbie, and John’s points, the CIO grows and contributes in that consultative role as they gain personal skills and deliver greater value across the business.

Can a CIO take on additional roles?

A CIO that successfully expands their consultative skills will one day be presented with the opportunity to own a bigger piece of the business.  As Kumud and John note, CIOs can (and should) be growing into bigger business roles, much like a CFO may some day become a CEO.

My original point is that a CIO should not wear multiple hats, much like a CFO typically does not also wear the CEO hat.  Instead, the CIO will be faced with a decision: keep the CIO hat and stay in that role, or exchange it for a different hat and a different role.  As Kumud notes, someone who takes on more and more hats is destined to fail; part of owning many hats is finding people to wear them for you. As you grow your role in the company, backfill the CIO position so that you can better focus on your broader responsibilities.

I think there is an additional hazard for CIOs wearing multiple hats: the threat of playing favorites.  CIOs work hard to be objective in providing services to all parts of the company equally.  If you provide the services and run a group that consumes them, at some point you will be accused of favoring yourself, which could make your life a bit difficult.

Can this compromise your credibility?

We often speak about CIOs becoming more business-focused, moving beyond our technology roles.  We fret about being the “executive nerd,” about our pure business skills being overlooked when the company seeks candidates for new leadership opportunities.  Some think that the opportunity to engage in areas outside of IT, even if driven by our technical knowledge, demonstrates that CIOs are moving into a more mainstream leadership role.

The opposite may be the case.  Being asked to join a product development team because you have important technical skills is nothing more than a high-level version of being asked to run the projector at an executive meeting.  If you continue to look for ways to grow beyond the role of the CIO that involve applying your technical skills to other parts of the business, you are still trading on your “classic CIO” foundation.  The real measure of your success in moving beyond the role of CIO is when you get invited to expand your contributions in ways that have nothing to do with technology.  That’s the real, pure, business role we all ultimately seek.

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Being Bartholomew Cubbins September 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Consider an ice cream company.  They make great ice cream and have enjoyed much success over the years.  But lately, their market share is slipping, and they are feeling heat of the competition.  They decide they need a new product line, a complete new set of frozen treats that will reshape the ice cream market.  To whom do they turn for product design and development?

Their CIO, of course!  Who better to know the vagaries of ice cream eaters?

Wrong. We all know this is wrong.  They would no more ask the CIO to design ice cream than they would the CFO or their general counsel.

Why, then, do companies that develop more technical products turn to the CIO to develop and market those products?  Why would anyone think that  a CIO, with their deep knowledge of systems, infrastructure, and service delivery, is able to build and sell a product at a profit?

Many CIOs these days are suddenly wearing several hats: CIO, Product Development, Web Marketing, and the like.  Some CIOs even have a P&L and are expected to make money for the company!  Who ever got it into their head that CIOs are also savvy marketers and salesmen?

As technology pervades every aspect of our lives, computing is becoming intertwined with almost every product bought and sold.  Desperate for help with all this technology, companies are turning to the only people they have on hand that seem to understand how to make all this stuff work: the CIO.  If a widget suddenly has a computer in it, the CIO is called in to help design, build, market, and sell the widget.  In some cases, they put the CIO completely in charge of the entire widget division!

This is a big mistake.  I take great pride in being a CIO, and I work hard to be a good one.  I have lots of experiences with computers and building software systems. I have no experience with developing and marketing products, whether they have computers in them or not.  I should not wear that hat.

I can provide lots of advice to a product developer who has little computing experience.  A person who understands the market space and has a brilliant idea, but has little understanding how computers might be used in that product, would do well to consult with a good CIO to understand the benefits and risks of the technology aspects of the product. Together, we could do great things.  Separately, we’re on the verge of disaster.

When you talk about very non-technical products, like ice cream or lawn fertilizer, this seems like an easy argument to make.  When the products involve lots of technology, like online banking or web-based shopping, people have a harder time seeing the distinction.  I think the problem is compounded by the fact that lots of CIOs are itching to do other things and gladly accept these other hats, all with the best of intentions.

I think a CIO can get in a lot of trouble by wearing too many hats.  If you want to be a CIO, wear that hat.  If you want to be a product designer or marketer, wear that hat.  But, like Bartholomew Cubbins, CIOs with too many hats are going to find themselves, sooner or later, all sorts of difficulties.

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