In the past, I’ve written about what I think the progressive CIO should strive for in her organization. Idealistic? Yes. Reasonable? I think so. There are many ways to improve enterprise IT that are possible and even necessary to accomplish. It’s important to stay grounded, though, in the day-to-day IT realities. Some ideals are just not possible to live up to. Now, most CIOs I know are too smart to over-promise, but if they were to do so, the promises they would make but would not be able to keep might look something like this:
Ensuring data security and integrity is one of the key mandates for a CIO. Data breaches may not only result in loss of proprietary data and intellectual property, it could also lead to loss of trust and huge negative publicity in the market. However, preventing data security breaches is very difficult, expensive, and ultimately impossible to perfect. If some of the most secure systems in the world (White House and Pentagon, for example) are not 100% secure, then there is no CIO anywhere who can promise 0% chance of security penetration.
In order for a company’s operations to run smoothly, business users need to be able to get to access information on-demand. Since business information usually resides in different systems, applications and databases which are often not integrated with one another, this is simply not always possible. For one, IT teams don’t have time to work on creating interfaces to data on a short notice. However, recent innovations have allowed business users to be able to access data more easily by creating connections themselves. Someday soon, CIOs and IT departments may be able to hold to this promise because of self-service integration applications that allow users to access data on-demand.
Every CIO would love to have their IT department be considered a strategic asset for the business that provides a competitive advantage. It is true that IT needs to play a larger role in strategic initiatives, but that doesn’t mean that IT will always make things easier for business. For one, CIO budgets are almost always either flat or decreasing, and in order to be able to invest in the latest tools and recruit out-of-the-box IT specialists, they need more than what has been allotted to them. The reality is that it can sometimes be difficult enough to keep the lights on with funding, let alone for IT to add consistent value to the organization. Since they’re held back by limited budgets and putting out day-to-day fires, the CIO does not always get a chance to think about and work on strategic initiatives.
Business managers and users always tend to expect their company to have the most advanced and sophisticated software and tools, and CIOs would certainly like this to be true. The problem is that, though IT is charged with providing optimized capabilities, their budget constraints usually prevent them from having the latest and greatest tools. Like the first promise, a CIO cannot make this statement unless he is given a virtually unlimited budget, which is, of course, an impossible premise.
Of course the main job for any CIO and IT department is to make sure the key systems, applications and databases are always up and that email is always working. If systems go down and employees aren’t able to work, this causes major disruption to the business and can impact customers. So, CIOs spend a lot of time working on improving system maintenance and uptime processes, and putting in place redundancy, disaster recovery and business continuity plans. However, no one has been able to beat Murphy’s Law — all kinds of problems such as data center issues, equipment failure, network downtime etc. can cause key systems to fail at any time. The best hope is to ensure that the downtime and its impact on business could be minimized.
I’m still an idealist, as I think we all should be, but it is important to understand what is possible and what is not crucial when you’re committing to goals and striving to achieve them. For more thoughts on the roles and actions of CIOs, check out A Month As CIO: The Seven Ways I Would Fix IT and The Chief Information Officer is Dead. Long Live the Chief Integration Officer!