S+B: It sounds like the timing is governed by the business itself — the ability of the business to absorb the change, or the business need.
FELD: Or the affordability. Here is a way to think about an IT transformation. If I outsourced my IT and freed up 20 percent of my spending, I’d reinvest it. I wouldn’t just take it off the table. Therefore, unless you have a context — a place to go and an idea of what to reinvest in — within which to have this conversation with the executive committee and the board, you are probably just cutting costs.
However, if you have a multiyear plan, you will get closer to your vision each year. In fact, you’d be amazed at what you can get done in two to four years. From there, you will need to sustain and build on this success. You do this by industrializing the new way of doing things and by periodically reviewing and recalibrating your strategy. This will move you forward, toward a continuous renewal strategy, much as you would experience with your plant and fleet equipment.
S+B: How does a CIO gain the credibility to lead this way?
FELD: First of all, I believe that chief information officer is a misleading title. The role is not just about information or technology. It’s about systems and integration. You could still call it the “CIO,” but the mental model should be “chief integration officer.” The most important skills are to be a systems thinker and to be able to see the system that is the company.
This is made difficult by the tactical pressure of today’s business environment. Projects are in many cases an endless stream of work orders coming from the middle of the organization. You are constantly driven to build functional solutions, which inevitably don’t fit together. In an airline, for instance, if you optimize the gate schedules you cause problems in maintenance. If you optimize maintenance, you cause problems in flight ops. Whose job is it, if not the COO’s and the CIO’s, to make sure the whole system works — for customers, for employees, and for shareholders? In many cases, fixing the “seams” between functions gives you more value than fixing problems in any individual department.
A good way to think about systems thinking was articulated in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization [Doubleday/Currency, 1990]. When things get complicated, you can learn through analysis — breaking down the problem into digestible components. But, as things get faster and more complex still, you have to learn from dynamics — seeing how the patterns evolve over time. To be a good IT systems person, you’ve got to have experience and an analytical mind, but to be a great IT leader, you’ve also got to be able to see dynamic patterns. Otherwise, you’ll keep building structures and programs that don’t connect to the larger ecosystem of your company: including customers, employees, suppliers, partners, and others.
Career Path for a Visionary CIO
S+B: You’re implying that the CIO needs to be a visionary who can convince people of the value of a bold direction.
FELD: This is a big, exciting, difficult, and critical role, pivotal to the future of large companies. I think about two major groups I’d like to help with this challenge and opportunity — the business and IT leaders who are in place today, and the future generation of leaders for whom the challenges could be even bigger down the road.
If I had a CIO role in a major enterprise today, I’d certainly be reaching out for help and collaboration. No matter how good you have been or think you are, things are changing so rapidly that good executives need to be open to others’ ideas, frameworks, tools, and experiences, and must constantly strive to develop their leaders. This type of 21st-century mind-set will help them in their jobs, help their departments, help their companies, and help the profession of CIOs.