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strategy and business
 / Spring 2008 / Issue 50(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Practical Visionary

On the other hand, many CIOs play an internal service role. The CIO must be sure that the trains run efficiently — that the organization’s many projects arrive on time and on budget, that its departments operate smoothly, and that the technology supporting the business works. He or she must also ensure that key business processes run as effectively as possible across the enterprise, often enabled by the successful deployment of new systems and technologies. In addition to these operational concerns, CIOs are subject to a whole range of other distractions and disruptions that include security threats (for instance, the theft of proprietary information or denial-of-service attacks that can shut down an enterprise’s Web site); compliance and regulatory concerns, which are increasing every year; and even environmental issues such as power usage. Meanwhile, the CIO must synchronize activities with virtually every function in the corporation, including finance, given that IT is a major cost center at most companies, and procurement and acquisition, which is critical to ensuring that the right technology is bought at the right time for the right price. And all this must be accomplished in the face of increasing difficulties in staffing the IT department and with constrained financial resources, given the reality of today’s business environment.

Unless operational concerns are managed adroitly, they can easily overwhelm the IT department and force CIOs into a reactive mode in which they spend all their time dealing with supply-side issues. Alternatively, if they are doing their operational job well, CIOs may simply go unnoticed. As critical as daily operations are, a CIO in an operations-only mode is unlikely to generate confidence among business-oriented colleagues looking for contributions to the enterprise’s ongoing strategic conversation.

How can CIOs boost corporate confidence in IT’s value? It depends in large part on their ability to keep the IT function running efficiently. It’s an issue of reputation and trust: If they can’t take care of their own specialty, how can top business executives expect them to function strategically? These skills extend to the ability to manage many projects effectively. Information technology is a highly project-oriented activity; large corporations often number their ongoing IT projects in the hundreds, if not the thousands. The reputation of the CIO frequently rests on his or her ability to complete projects on time and on budget, demonstrate the value of every project by showing how it will contribute to the organization’s overall strategic goals, and develop measures that show how a particular technology effort has contributed to business performance or productivity.

In Gliedman’s view, this sort of trust has to be built from the ground up, beginning with the IT group itself. “The people who work in my department understand my vision of striving for operational excellence all the time,” he notes, “because that enables them to focus on the cooler things, like virtualization and voice over IP and social networking.” That has also meant teaching the IT people how to deal with business issues and how to go beyond serving, reactively, as what Gliedman calls “order takers.”

On that basis, Gliedman has been able to maneuver beyond IT’s traditional role to engage the entire NBA as a business partner. That means using the trust his department has built up to work more regularly with the business units to support strategic initiatives — such as, which had been outsourced and which Gliedman took back in-house soon after his arrival. Another example is his effort to learn more about the league’s fan base through business intelligence technol­ogy, and then to use the resulting marketing successes to build up yet more business values. In that way, IT, traditionally seen as a supplier of services on demand, has been transformed into a strategy-driven function, with the business now regularly saying, as Gliedman puts it, “We’re thinking about doing something next season, and we want your ideas on the best way to do it.” Dealing with such requests has given Gliedman the authority to make decisions about what new technology initiatives to take on and has put him in a position to help the business side push the technology limits as far as possible. “It’s no longer a matter of the business saying, ‘This is what we want,’ and we take the orders,” he says. “It’s now a much more collaborative effort.”

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  1. Allan E. Alter, “The Role of the CIO: Setting a Strategic Course,” CIO Insight, April 2007: Last year’s very informative update of a long-running survey of top IT executives on CIOs and their position within their companies.
  2. Marianne Broadbent, The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results (Harvard Business School Press, 2004): This tough-minded survey of how top IT executives succeed offers advice rooted in the realpolitik of the world of the corporate CIO.
  3. Nicholas G. Carr, Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business School Press, 2004): The book-length version of Carr’s seminal, and controversial, article on IT and corporate strategy. A must-read for those interested in either subject.
  4. Rich Kauffeld, Johan Sauer, and Sara Bergson, “Partners at the Point of Sale,” s+b, Autumn 2007: Description of how shelf-centered collaboration among manufacturers and retailers provides a major new opportunity for the strategic CIO.
  5. National Basketball Association Web site: Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, it’s worth taking a look at the state of the art in Web site technology.
  6. For more articles on IT and technology, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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