The complexities of the CIO's lot

What is it about the IT environment that causes CIOs to be so unsure of where they stand with their bosses? Is it the unsettling tendency of spin doctors to 'blame the computer' when some headline-grabbing customer service gaffe occurs?

What is it about the IT environment that causes CIOs to be so unsure of where they stand with their bosses? Is it the unsettling tendency of spin doctors to "blame the computer" when some headline-grabbing customer service gaffe occurs? Or the glee with which opposition politicians seize on public sector project glitches?

It’s probably those, plus relentless pressure to keep IT spending in check. The combined effect is to give CIOs a bit of a complex when it comes to knowing their worth to the organisations they work for.

This is borne out in the latest Forecast for Management survey of IT’s standing within hundreds of organisations in New Zealand and Australia, presented last week by IDC (the analyst arm of Computerworld publisher IDG).

The apparent CIO self-doubt is illustrated by responses to questions on how they believe they’re perceived by the executives they work for and with. Of themselves, the answers are pretty positive. But when this year’s responses are compared to last year’s, lack of confidence about IT’s place in the world comes through.

For example, the number of CIOs who believe their bosses think IT contributes to operational capabilities suffers a decline in this latest survey (from 78% to 73% -- of a total number of New Zealand respondents of about 70). Seventy-three percent isn’t too shabby a result. But surely if IT is doing its job, it’s making itself more and more indispensable to the smooth running of organisations, not less? Barring a statistical anomaly, that wouldn’t seem to be the case here.

On the other hand, last year just 9% of those surveyed considered IT was seen as a source of competitive advantage; this year the figure climbs to 17%. That proportion isn’t great but at least the trend is in a positive direction. Why is it, though, that IT is not apparently more widely considered central to getting a jump on rivals? Is it a legacy of the hype surrounding e-commerce, and resulting distrust of IT-based business transformation? All those who sank money into ill-fated electronic marketplaces are nodding in agreement.

There’s corroboration elsewhere in the survey of lingering lack of faith in e-commerce. The respondents indicate only modest increases in e-business spending as a proportion of total IT budgets, from about 5% last year to 7% this year. The greatest proportion of their internet and web spending is going on intranets, followed by browser-based system development, with e-commerce systems coming in at number three on the priority list. Exchanges are decidedly uncool, ranking as the lowest priority -- behind WAP projects, even. So thorough is the disdain for doing business online that respondent organisations are themselves buying less IT gear via the internet than they did last year or the year before. (About 3% of IT acquisitions were made online; external ASPs, in contrast, are supplying a growing proportion.) And when CIOs can bring themselves to talk about e-commerce, it’s using the internet for customer contact and support, rather than making sales, that they’re paying greatest attention to.

The IDC survey brings plenty more to light. For example, it shows that fewer resources are being dedicated to inhouse application development. This suggests either less of it is being done, or it’s being done more efficiently. Conversely, more effort is being sunk into support. But IT management and operational resources haven’t budged -- today, 21% of IT department resources are given to each, just as they were in 1996.

When it comes to identifying CIOs’ challenges, keeping end users happy is their main preoccupation in 2003 (displacing cost reduction, the top priority last year). If they succeed at that, word will hopefully filter through to the chief executive, so that next year they’ll feel surer about their place in the world.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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