How A CIO Remains Relevant In The New Shadow IT Era


When it comes to our relationship with the business, things are in a bit of flux for us CIO-types. In the good old days (about three years ago) we had some level of control over the selection and implementation of technology in the organization; nowadays, not so much. With the advent of strong, reliable, compelling and extensive software-as-a-service (SaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings, our business peers can find, select and implement pretty much any technology service without ever consulting or working with us. This extends the concept of "shadow IT" to an entirely new level -- one at which we can become irrelevant.

In the old days, shadow IT was when marketing, accounting or supply chain management hired a few IT people to do the IT tasks that never quite got onto our list of priorities. With the new shadow IT, who really needs an IT organization at all? After all, we are typically over-stretched and seen as hard to work with and uncommunicative.

What, then, is an IT leader to do? In short, I need to make sure that I am never irrelevant. I do that by delivering on two imperatives: enabling strategy and achieving operational excellence.

[Related: VARs Need A Virtual CIO On Staff To Be True Trusted Advisor]

These two requirements are interdependent. If my team and I cannot execute (lots of system downtime, late and over-budget projects, poor customer service) we will never have the internal credibility to be trusted with enabling strategy. Likewise, if we are excluded from the critical conversations about how the organization creates competitive advantage, we won't know where to focus our effort and innovation. That would put our operational delivery at risk.

If my team and I enable strategy and achieve operational excellence, we become irreplaceable. Thus, everything I do is designed to provide strategy and superior delivery. This includes how I approach and manage my relationships with my leadership team peers, my internal and external customers, and my vendors and VARs.

In working with my leadership team peers, I learn about their drivers and map technology options onto these needs. I define and deliver on service levels so that they know that I am their best option at providing high-quality, high-value, highly reliable IT services. In dealing with my internal and external customers, I map out and understand their lives so that I can identify the places where technology does -- or could -- make their lives better.

In dealing with my vendors and VARs, I expect a few things. First, they need to understand there is likely very little they can do that will help IT enable organizational strategy. Strategy enablement is something I need to own and deliver. Second, they need to help me deliver and maintain operational excellence. In practice, bring me best practices that fill any operational gaps and tools and methods that reduce risks. I am involved in high-stakes activities every day, and the more someone can help me eliminate risks, the more I can focus on becoming irreplaceable. Third, work through me and never sell directly to my CFO, CEO, CMO, etc. The last thing I need is someone reinforcing the notion that my peers don't need their CIO and IT department.

One of my metrics for success is that no one goes around me and my team in order to get the technology he or she needs. If I am doing the right things -- including managing all the relationships -- my peers and customers will want me to be their technology decision maker.

Niel Nickolaisen is the chief information officer for Western Governors University, a nonprofit, entirely online university. He holds a MS in engineering from MIT and a BS in physics from Utah State University. He is the author of "Stand Back and Deliver" and one of the founders of Accelinnova, a think tank focused on improving organizational and IT agility.

PUBLISHED APRIL 5, 2013