Red Hat CIO: Business advice on IT value

Chief Information Officers must actively consider ways to partner with the business. Lee Congdon, CIO of Red Hat Software shares practical advice for developing strategic relationships outside IT. Essential reading for every CIO and all IT personnel.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Questions about the ongoing role and relevance of IT are among the top discussion points that come up during my conversations with Chief Information Officers.

The concerns are reasonable, given the increasing technology sophistication proliferating throughout many organizations and the uncertain implications of digital transformation for IT.

Solving the challenge of CIO relevance requires an ongoing commitment to partnership, relationship, communication, and leadership. Although not always easy to implement, these skills can transform a CIO from technology specialist to business innovator.

On episode number 139 of CXOTalk, the CIO of Red Hat Software, Lee Congdon, shared specific advice that can help every CIO develop business partnerships to drive relevance for IT. Lee's comments are concrete and beneficial, and I recommend them without reservation.

You can read a complete transcript of Lee's appearance on cxotalk.com and watch the entire video below.

Lee has a clear understanding of modern-day IT and CIO challenges, and his thoughts are highly worthwhile. If you want to be a successful CIO, then keep reading.

The following points are an abbreviated transcript, edited for length and clarity.

How should a CIO balance the conflicting demands of cost control and innovation?

This is not typically an unsolvable problem but does require taking the initiative to ensure the business doesn't treat IT as a cost center.

Lee Congdon, CIO Red Hat Software (image courtesy cxotalk.com)
Lee Congdon, CIO Red Hat Software (image courtesy cxotalk.com)
Even if you have a lot of technology debt, even if you have a cost problem, you've got to innovate and put a plan in place to move forward.

If you focus too much on cost control, your business partners may pick a software-as-a-service solution and do it without you. You can quickly become caretaker of a depreciating set of assets, with things moving the business forward occurring elsewhere.

As an IT organization you must make investments to refurbish your portfolio, retire your technology debt, and lower the cost of your legacy infrastructure. But that's just table stakes and you probably won't get credit for it in today's environment.

To be truly successful as an IT organization, you must bring new ideas to drive revenue or reduce cost for the business as a whole. If you don't, they'll do it without you where there is a critical need and they have a budget. Then, you'll end up with a non-integrated set of solutions and potentially security exposures.

How can a CIO develop partnerships with other parts of the business?

We need to set the expectation with IT folks to listen to business challenges and not just to technical challenges, engaging with business partners and being a service organization.

As organizations move from an industrial view of the world to an information-based view, IT has the opportunity to play a leadership role in that transformation, in partnership with the business. IT can't do it by themselves.

Help your business partners build a strategy and path to evolve as an organization that takes advantage of new technology capabilities.

What about shadow IT?

Shadow IT is an opportunity -- and an example of a business partner willing to spend money on a technology solution -- when I haven't yet explained the value of the services that I can bring to the table.

We try and be open and candid about those conversations with our business partners. Even if they start with a shadow IT and business-led project, we work with them to fold it back into the IT portfolio over time and ensure it's consistent with our overall technology strategy.

How can a CIO and IT achieve credibility and relevance with the business?

You need predictability and appropriate risk management in your projects. You also need transparency, visibility, when a project goes to red explain how you're going to recover. Nobody wants to have a strategic IT conversation if the email server is down, so you need to start there.

We do almost all agile now, so train your business partners to get comfortable with your project methodology. They may not be familiar with that level of engagement, so get the basics right. The expectation is there that production will run and you will deliver the project.

In parallel, based on those successes, think about building partnerships. Some of that can be serendipity. When an organization comes to IT for help, there can be conscious marketing and allocating resources to build partnerships.

Do this for all of your partner organizations. Relationships will occur at different paces, depending on the level of available funding, their priorities and willingness to partner, your internal culture -- all of those things will be drivers.

Assuming you have been successful up to that point, then think about where are you going to lead the organization. Not just IT, but the entire organization.

What advice do you have for CIOs and people in IT who want to contribute more strategically?

Don't lose your IT skills or your passion for technology, but realize you're a business person.

Find out everything you can about your company, its challenges and opportunities, and provide your unique perspective as a technologist in addressing those business challenges.

If that means investing in a business education or learning about finance, marketing, sales, or whatever it might be, then consider it. Having that combined business and technology background is a very powerful set of skills as we shift to this information-driven economy.

CXOTalk offers in-depth conversations with innovative business leaders shaping the future. Our extensive video library presents discussions on the topics that interest you most. See more at cxotalk.com.

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