Peter High’s Must-Read Book on the New Roles for CIOs and IT

Implementing-World-Class-IT-Strategy-Peter-High-315x468Peter High has an urgent message to CIOs everywhere: You Can Do It! The sub-title of his new book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy: How IT Can Drive Organizational Innovation, also makes it clear that his clarion call is more broadly aimed at CEOs and other senior executives who seek advice on how to harness the digital perfect storm. The book, says High, is about “how IT can become a tremendous force for improving the strategic work of the company as a whole.”

All businesses and organizations today are digital. They use IT to innovate the means by which they interact with their outside constituencies—customers, partners, suppliers—and the ways by which they manage their internal operations and motivate their employees. But with a half-century legacy of a continuously widening gap between rapid technological change and inadequate organizational adaptation, IT is still regarded in many quarters as a “cost center.” With this legacy IT role goes the definition of the CIO as a cost-cutter and a process expert. IT, even in this digital age, is supposed to keep “the trains running” and the “lights on.”

This perception of the role of the IT organization has led to endless complaints about the CIO “not having a seat at the table.” The CIO has not been involved in deliberations among senior executives regarding where the business is going and has been left out of the development of the strategy of the business. Even in the increasingly common situation where the CIO is involved with the development of the overall strategy of the organization, the short- and long-term goals of the IT organization are developed as a follow-on component of that strategy.

Long-held perceptions are difficult to change, especially for the people being pegged as followers rather than leaders. High references Gary Beach, the publisher emeritus of CIO magazine, who has found in fifteen years of surveying CIOs that only 9%—at most—saw themselves as “game changers” in their workplace. “I am not surprised,” writes High, “that CIOs might have suffered from a lack of confidence in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but during current times when IT is so clearly growing in importance, how could this continue to be the case?”

Instead of waiting for others (mainly CEOs) to change this sorry state-of-the-CIO, High recommends that CIOs become “more strategic.” By this High means “weaving one’s self and one’s team more into the strategy-setting process for the rest of the organization, to articulate the many ways in which IT can bring those plans to life, to suggest new strategic possibilities to one’s peers who head other divisions, and to artfully and clearly articulate the plans that IT has for itself.”

For more than a decade, Peter High has worked as a consultant with those CIOs who have demonstrated that they are indeed “game changers.” Since 2008 (and more recently, on FORBES), he has produced and posted over 150 interviews with leading CIOs, among them some that have been rewarded for the initiatives they have taken with promotions to bigger roles.

This view from the trenches and the actions of executives who have made IT a driver of innovation, infuse Implementing World Class IT Strategy with rich details and illuminating case studies. It is a must-read for anyone interested in making IT a leader rather than a follower.

The first case study High describes in the book, as well as subsequent ones, makes a strong case for IT leadership. When Gerry Pennell became in 2008 the CIO for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the “strategic plans for the other functions the [organizing] committee oversaw were in their nascent stage at best.”

That did not stop Pennell from forging ahead with a “full IT strategy,” planting a stake in the ground with a plan he knew will be adjusted and revised by technological changes over the next four years and the ongoing interactions with his peers. His actions, writes High, stand “in contrast to how a lot of CIOs act in absence of concrete plans from the corporation of which they are a part. Too many of them match inaction with inaction, rather than proceeding with IT’s own vision of where the company will be several years out and information technology’s role in realizing this vision.”

Implementing World Class IT Strategy is full of useful advice, ranging from what steps to take in order to help the company and its divisions better articulate strategic plans to how best to review, refresh, and communicate these plans. The book ends with the story of ADP’s Mike Capone, who added the role of corporate vice president for product development to his CIO responsibilities, exemplifying “the IT executive who expands the value of IT to the point where it is only logical that he takes over a key business role.” In between these—and many other—descriptions of the work of CIOs that lead rather than follow, High methodically unfolds the components of his framework for the CIO’s role as the catalyst for the organization’s strategic plans and IT’s role as a catalyst for innovation.

There are many dimensions to High’s portrayal of the new role of the CIO, but in light of recent developments in the C-Suite, I think it is important to call one out. High calls it “trendspotting” or IT’s leadership in noticing important emerging technologies, and recommends having R&D staff attached to the CIO to evaluate their potential value. This recommendation is important in the context of the recent rise of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) in many organizations and their “power grab,” as Dan Woods calls it, taking over responsibilities that are “central to the function of the CIO and CTO. The CDO has emerged as the leader of reshaping the business to take advantage of data and technology.”

With the rise of the CDO, so the argument goes, there is no need for an IT strategy, and possibly, no need for a CIO. In the digital age all businesses are digital and they should have one overall digital strategy. That may sound like a plausible argument but it may fall flat in many organizations where there is no well-defined strategy, to say nothing about a digital strategy. There is no good reason why the CIO should not be leading the charge to change this situation and facilitate the overall plan for capitalizing on, rather than drowning in, the avalanche of digital data. High writes: “Why not pursue this change? Why not let this journey for the company begin with the provocative steps of its CIO? It is time for action.”

[Originally published on]