Is IT Held to a Higher Standard?

Is IT Held to a Higher Standard?

Many CIOs I know have expressed both concern and frustration about the notion that IT is held to a higher standard than other functional areas of a typical organization. Is this simply a perception based on the normal challenges and complexities of our work or is this something more – maybe even a growing trend or phenomenon in our ever-changing tech-savvy business world?

Let’s explore this question starting with some thoughts about what a “higher standard” in IT is all about, at least from a CIO perspective.

It’s not Fair

You may have heard the old adage that you can do a thousand things perfectly with just one exception and that single flaw will be the only thing that gets noticed. And so it goes for many IT organizations and CIOs in particular. All it takes is one small miscue in a perfect storm situation to take down a critical production system and damage an important business partner relationship.

On the other hand, how many times have you witnessed a non-IT department that flies under the radar, has plenty of problems and issues, but seems to either get a pass or even receive accolades and praise from the rest of the organization? If you are a CIO and have experienced this apparent chasm of inequity then you are probably not alone in feeling unappreciated and maybe even a bit paranoid.

No Respect

So, is this just a perception problem on the part of all of the corporate Rodney Dangerfield’s (otherwise known as CIOs) out there? Even if you think it might be, perception is reality – especially in large numbers. Whether it’s in the minds of CIOs or there actually is a higher standard for IT, we should dig a little deeper and see if we can find some answers.

Money pit

Yes, IT is expensive. In some organizations IT has the highest cost of any department. Regardless of the innovation, efficiencies, and business enablement IT provides, we are often thought of as the black hole of corporate overhead. The size of the IT budget alone creates high expectations and can also lead to tension – especially when there is lack of transparency or even disagreement about the value that IT adds.

Trust me

I know that some of you have been around long enough to remember when IT was not only thought of as mysterious, but was also held in high regard for the magic performed in big boxes on raised floors behind locked doors. Long ago, business partners reluctantly accepted the black art that surrounded technology and believed, at least in part, IT’s explanations without much validation. That has all changed. Mystery and quasi-blind trust have been replaced by tech-savvy and skeptical business partners who, in many cases, understand the nature of what we do and don’t accept “trust me” as a valid response. So, could it be that the pendulum has swung all the way back and CIOs are now paying for IT behaviors of the past?

Come on, Todd, that’s a Stretch

Maybe so, but we should be able to agree that expectations for IT and the CIO are very high. Why? We have already touched on a few of the reasons – the requirement of near perfection combined with extreme complexity, the high cost of technology, and the evolution of more informed and demanding business partners. At the end of the day, IT touches and connects virtually everything in the organization so the underlying assumption that IT must deliver is very strong. In most cases, business partners cannot be successful unless IT executes. No other area within an organization has the same broad impact on business processing activities and individual department success than IT. And this, perhaps, is at the heart of the challenge and the basis for IT being held to a higher standard.

Why me?

So, if IT is held to a higher standard then how should we respond? It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing IT to other departments or feeling like victims because no one understands or appreciates us. This is the kiss of death for a CIO so beware and tread lightly. CIOs have a keen insight into the difficult nature of our work and the importance of what we do in every part of the organization. The problem is that others typically don’t have the same insight and even if they did they would still have their own perspective. So, what should we do?

The answer

I think there are two parts to the answer. First, everyone in a successful organization should be held to a higher standard – not just IT and the CIO. Raise the bar on expectations, accept accountability, and then help each other achieve our collective objectives. This is how it should work and it takes strong leadership and persistence to make it happen. Secondly, CIOs should accept being held to a higher standard as a challenge. Instead of complaining about all of the criticisms and lack of recognition, we should embrace the opportunity to provide transparency to business partners about the work we do and the value we provide.

Recurring dialog on strategies, priorities, resources, challenges, general updates, improvements, and successes go a long way to create and nurture relationships. And, when things get tough, and they do from time to time, strong relationships and good partnering are essential in working through issues effectively and finding the best solutions.

Are the CIO’s burdens a little more than what some others may bear? Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. Our burdens belong to us – we don’t have to carry them alone, but we do have to own them because that’s our job. It’s up to each of us to lighten our own loads and achieve success through leadership, transparency, collaboration, and being great business partners.

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Todd Coombes

Todd Coombes, Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer, CNO Financial Group, Inc.

Todd Coombes joined CNO in 2005 and is currently serving as SVP and CIO. Before joining CNO, Coombes was CEO of Health Care Systems Corporation, a software development firm providing SaaS based solutions in the healthcare industry. Prior to... More   View all posts
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