Overcoming technology illiteracy.
Chief executives - even the most successful among them - must re-engineer their attitudes toward information technology to survive in today's increasingly competitive climate. What is required is an embrace that is direct, personal, and hands-on. The alternative, which often brings disastrous consequences, is to abdicate responsibility for supervising the information technology decisions that every enterprise must make.
Bottom line: Information technology is the CEO's responsibility. Only the CEO is in a position to articulate an IT plan perfectly aligned with the company's strategic mission. The vision must have hooks at every level. It must be broad enough to elicit support from everyone in the organization, yet specific enough to inspire information technology initiatives at the grass-roots level.
To implement such a plan, both the CEO and CIO have to accept a new outlook. The CEO's job is to learn some technology and accept responsibility for determining the organization's information technology future. The CIO must be responsible for making the technology serve the business. If the CEO accepts the role of leading this change - and the CIO accepts that his or her role is to deliver solutions and relevant information, all properly wrapped to meet the needs of the business - the partnership and the organization will prosper.
The stakes of computer-literacy cannot be higher. In some cases, computing is a key factor in corporate success; in others, it is a key factor in corporate failure. Either way, chief executives understand that information technology is now a major cost of doing business. At a growing number of companies, in fact, computing represents the largest cost after personnel. CEOs accept this hit on the budget, because they realize that information technology is the fundamental driving force of the modern global economy. What they often don't understand, however, is how to align IT's capabilities with the organization's strategic goals. Nor do many chief executives make the effort to gain hands-on familiarity with what information technology can offer.
Not that the guardians of information technology have made such a task inviting. Could there be a profession with more acronyms, abbreviations, and buzz-words? The shelves of every bookstore in the country groan with the weight of dictionaries and glossaries dedicated to computing. Fortunately, techno-literacy has nothing to do with understanding buzzwords. It is attained through recognition of the process for integrating information technology and systems with the elements of traditional business strategy. The only reasonable way to accomplish this goal is by actually using the technology to solve business problems.
Many chief executives generally turn their backs on the subject while citing the three common objections to a hands-on approach to information technology.
* Information technology is complicated. Yes, and so are finance, marketing, and long-range planning. Yet all chief executives can sit through highly detailed meetings rife with numbers. Why? Because they are convinced that understanding the numbers is key to understanding their businesses. Information technology is no different.
* Information technology demands expertise. So do finance and marketing, but only to a point. Few chief executives are as expert in federal taxation as their CFOs are, nor should they be. CEOs designate experts in diverse areas precisely to free themselves to consider the big picture. Emulating the degree of expertise would waste valuable time.
* CIOs speak technobabble, making communication virtually impossible. There are two issues here. CIOs need to learn the language of business so they can frame their requirements in terms CEOs can more easily relate to. But CEOs need to meet them halfway, a task that is by no means as grueling as it might first appear. A chief executive who relocates to run a subsidiary in Munich immediately tries to grasp rudimentary German. And when a CEO moves from running a consumer packaged-goods company to a retail chain, he or she always starts by learning retail nomenclature. Why is learning the language of information technology so different?
It isn't, except for the historical legacy of technophobia. For executives committed to becoming comfortable with information technology, a number of educational and training opportunities are available. The CEO Institutes (a division of International Media Partners in New York) and Computer Associates pioneered a series of three-day technology retreats called "The CEO in a Wired World." These conferences aim to empower CEOs to face the challenges of working with computers, understanding the concepts, and formulating a strategy to effectively exploit information technology in their organizations.
Whether a CEO chooses special training or on-the-job learning, there really is no alternative to overcoming techno-illiteracy. If CEOs remain ignorant about information technology, our global economy is doomed. By contrast, CEOs who master the subject can help guide an organization's information technology destiny. Given IT's indispensability, a company lucky enough to be guided by an informed CEO enjoys a durable advantage over a company that is not.
We are witnessing a shake-up transforming corporations around the globe. Companies in the 1990s are reorganizing themselves around access to information. In this brief, we have explored the role client/server computing plays in this transformation. We have discussed its impact on people. We have underscored that client/server may not be ready for some companies and that some companies may not be ready for client/server. We have noted that the costs of deploying and managing client/server applications need to be analyzed.
We hope this CEO Brief will help chief executives to understand client/server issues. Only then can they craft a vision of how client/server fits into the strategic goals of promoting quality and customer service, increasing corporate agility, and building and maintaining durable competitive advantage.
RELATED ARTICLE: MYTH OR REALITY? NAVIGATING THE CLIENT/SERVER MINEFIELD
Want to increase the chances that your client/server project will make the grade and come in on budget? Run a reality check on the following assertions, often trumpeted by client/server's more fanatical adherents.
1. Believe everything you hear. Everybody is talking about how great client/server is and how much money it saves. With so many people shouting from the rooftops, it must be a very hot solution for all information systems challenges.
Reality Check: Discount everything you read and hear about any emerging technology. Don't assume information from your own people is necessarily any more reliable than what you hear from vendors and people outside the company. Define the business your company is in and where it needs to go. The question is not whether client/server is ready for you. The fundamental point is: Are you ready for client/server?
2. Announce that, starting tomorrow, every information technology project, without exception, will be based on client/server. Avoid needless debate. Compel people to board the bandwagon to ensure alignment with the latest fad.
Reality Check: Client/server is not a panacea. It may or may not make sense in any given set of circumstances, but it almost certainly doesn't make sense when it is imposed without a clear reason. Client/server may support your goals in some areas; in others it may not. Each instance represents a decision point that may spell the difference between success and failure.
3. Announce a profit-sharing program to distribute the money that client/server will save the company. The savings are almost automatic, aren't they?
Reality Check: While client/server computing eventually may save you money, it certainly won't be in the short run. Client/server computing is a long-term commitment that might promote strategic competitive advantage.
4. As your first client/server project, select a bet-your-business application. If client/server is so good, why waste time with inconsequential applications? You want a test case with a high profile. Go for the brass ring and get the recognition you deserve.
Reality Check: There's a real art to picking test cases. You want a test case that is big enough to matter but small enough to win.
5. Make sure you buy from as many vendors as possible, Your programming staff needs freedom of choice. Integration is not a worry, because everything works together.
Reality Check: The larger the number of vendors involved, the greater the chance for finger pointing when something goes wrong. And the more complex the project, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. The best strategy is to select one or a small number of cooperating strategic vendors to provide the foundation for your client/server project.