Who really makes the decisions about IT projects?

The CIO, the CEO or the humble user? When it comes to making the call on tech developments, who really has the last word?
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
cio decisions

Tech projects aren't just down to the CIO.

Image: iStock

CIOs might be charged with helping their organisations to make the most of technology but no executive works in isolation, especially when it comes to the fast-changing world of digital business.

How should IT leaders engage with the rest of the c-suite? Is the CIO's word final when it comes to systems and services, or should technology chiefs seek counsel from their executive peers, and others throughout the organisation? ZDNet gets four best practice tips from the experts.

Start taking innovative ideas to the rest of the business

Enterprise Rent-A-Car European IT director Jeff King says the CIO's word is probably more final when it comes to issues of infrastructure use rather than concerns around application development. While IT should be employed to make decisions regarding the underlying technology of a business, King believes end users must have a say on software.

"You can't make decisions about applications in a vacuum," he says. "Our business views technology as a strategic advantage. That crucial role puts our IT department in a great position. But I recognise technology is not so highly valued at all organisations."

King believes there has been a subtle change in decision-making during the past decade. IT professionals have got used to the business coming to the technology team with great ideas about systems and services. Now, a switch around is taking place - and the business needs engaged IT executives.

"CIOs understand technology," says King. "They know what kinds of innovation are taking place and they can go to the business and say that the organisation must take advantage of the developments."

King says the car rental business will look very different five years from now because of things like telematics, mobile and even the self-driving car. He says he and his executive team must consider all these developments. "There's a new way of doing things and we must start talking," he says.

Focus on storytelling as part of a healthy c-suite debate

Brad Dowden sees CIOs as business people that happen to have a good understanding of technology. Dowden is the former CIO of recruitment firm Adecco and now runs transformational projects for big firms, including a recently completed programme management stint at Odeon and UCI Cinemas.

"CIOs are still often viewed as technology experts, but modern IT leaders must also prove that they are commercially astute," he says. He argues that modern business is a democracy - and no individual executive, even the CEO, holds sway.

"On a board, no one makes a decision in insolation," he says. "The c-suite must contain a healthy level of debate. CIOs need to be able to hold their own and understand how every area of the business relates to technology."

Dowden says storytelling has become increasingly important for c-suite executives who want to contribute to organisational objectives. CIOs must be able to tell a convincing tale and help the rest of the company to see the benefits of each initiative. "Everything's becoming a project," says Dowden.

"Technology is becoming more like a commodity. If you shift your technology to a supplier, the people left in the IT department must understand business demands and deliver to those requirements. If you're seen as someone that solves problems, the business will come and use you again."

Be prepared to challenge the CEO and the senior team

Richard Norris, head of IT and business change at Reliance Mutual Insurance Society, says CIOs will always have challenges around budgeting, about whether their aims are achievable, and how long it will take to meet certain objectives.

"CEOs always want CIOs to deliver things faster, cheaper and better," he says. "But one of the things you should never do is to say 'yes' to everything." Norris says there comes a time in every CIO's time in charge when they have to turn around to the CEO and say that the IT team is too busy and certain things will have to wait.

"Some people can end up giving an automatic 'yes', rather than a much more detailed conversation based around options," he says, adding that CIOs should not be scared to prioritise. "Challenge the business - being challenged is good, and it works both ways," says Norris.

"No one can have all the answers but everyone has the potential to learn and develop. If someone challenges you as an executive, that's great. It shows they've got a view and they're giving you an opportunity to review the approach that has been taken."

Consult executive peers before making key decisions

Colin Lees, CIO at BT Business, is part of his organisation's leadership team, which also includes the managing director for services, the product manager and the two executives responsible for sales. The members of this senior team work together, says Lees.

"If we're going to launch a new product, one of us can stop the project if, for example, the technology or the service isn't good enough," he says. "The business relies on us, a small number of decision makers but it is a collaborative process."

If there's an issue with technology, the rest of the senior team will expect Lees to assess the issues at hand and to bring his honest opinion to the rest of the team.

"If I'm going to implement a technology that leads to a huge increase in call volumes, then the services manager has a veto," says Lees. "Likewise, I can stop a solution going to market if I don't believe the sales team is ready to sell the new technology service."

Lees says the senior management at BT empowers its leadership team and expects executives to work together in order to make the right decisions for the organisation. "It's a good place to work because we are focused on the team," says Lees.

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