What Does Your CIO Really Need to Know?

They really need to know, writes Jerry Mechling, how to earn a role as a trusted member of the leadership team.
March 5, 2008
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Chief information officers are responsible for information technology, so that's what they need to know, right?

Well, yes, partly. They need to understand technology enough to decide on infrastructure, operations, and staff. They need to supply technology that delivers on promises. They need to maintain legitimacy "down and in."

However, as technologies grow exponentially more productive, CIOs also need to build relationships "up and out." They need to show how IT can contribute to major organizational goals and strategy; they need to earn a role as a trusted member of the leadership team.

In that context, here's what your CIO really needs to know:

1. How information technology shapes goals and strategy

Fundamentally, work is a series of if-then steps. If you've worked a certain number of hours with a known rate and deductions, then calculating your paycheck is straightforward. If the data can be objectively codified, computers can do most of the work for you, once programmed to follow the routine.

This was true even when computing power represented a significant expense -- but only for high-volume, well-structured operations. Think payroll again or, more generally, accounting. Computerization was automation, infrastructure was limited, and applications were rigid, typically taking years to implement. Computerization was often cost-effective, but rarely a strategic concern for the organization as a whole.

Over the past 20 years, however, skyrocketing productivity has generated applications for less-frequent and less-structured work: The data and analysis required for medical research, or to enable battlefield awareness, is much different than for payroll. To enable new and strategic applications, infrastructure and computer skills have now become mandatory and pervasive: The Internet has weaved increasingly powerful and ubiquitous connections around the globe. Serious applications can be built within a few months and then flexibly modified as new needs emerge; look at Wikipedia and YouTube.

Fundamentally, we've shifted from technology usable only after routines were well established to using technology as a primary agent of change for all sorts of social, economic and political innovations.

This makes it important for CIOs to know how technology can shape goals and implementation within and across programs, agencies, jurisdictions and industries. We can't find the best opportunities anymore by looking down and in; we also need the horizontal, and up and out, possibilities. Whatever your mission is -- education, homeland security, health care -- your CIO needs to be able to show how IT can enable you to shape and reach your most important goals.

2. How to be a trusted member of the leadership team

As public-sector CIOs focus on strategy and innovation, they need to earn their place on the leadership team.

In the private sector, CIOs work with other leaders to focus on organizational capacity in relation to two critical groups: customers and competitors. With a good strategy, leaders develop organizational capacity to produce value for customers greater than that offered by competitors.

In the public sector, the challenge is similar, yet more complex.

Organizational capacity is again the first and most easily influenced element. The organization must be able to analyze, decide, organize, control, and innovate. It must understand its strengths and weaknesses. For IT-related issues, in particular, it must develop an efficient, reliable, and flexible infrastructure. To build these capacities, public leaders, including CIOs, must have strong skills as managers. The CIO must be a trusted steward of the organization's information resources.

Value is the second element of the triad. But where private value can be assessed largely by analyzing customers and profit, public value requires a more complex analysis. Governments deliver obligations (taxes, speed limits, environmental regulations), as well as services (education, recreation, health care). Therefore, to design for value, governments must analyze and understand the entire community, not just those they interact with directly. Leaders need to assess market failures and make tradeoffs on the benefits and costs of potential interventions, largely without access to a simplifying measure such as profits (as their private-sector counterparts have). To produce public value, leaders, including CIOs, must have strong skills as analysts. The CIO must offer evidence-based feedback and insights on how the organization is relating to public concerns for productivity, equity, transparency, uncertainty, immediacy, and other values.

Political support is the third part of the triad, when strategic attention in the public sector shifts from economic competition to those factors that guide and constrain via the authorizing environment. In the public sector, leaders must negotiate in the face of political competition: There are elections to be won, bills to be passed and budgets to be built. Public leaders, including CIOs, must have strong skills as advocates. The CIO must contribute appropriately and persuasively to the conversations and negotiations of the political environment.

* * *

The world is becoming more turbulent, more global, more knowledge-based, and more dependent on digital technologies. The applications have shifted from incremental automation of high-volume, established routines to the creation of innovative and often disruptive new divisions of labor.

As the applications have changed, we need CIOs who know how IT can contribute to new public-sector strategies that both augment organizational capacity and create value in ways that garner political support. In this context, leaders -- including CIOs -- need skills as managers, analysts and advocates, along with the informed judgment required to balance those roles for the best overall impact.