CIO Or Perish

In the beginning, there was the EDP manager. Safely ensconced
behind the glass walls of his cabin within the air-conditioned glass kingdom titled ‘Data
Processing Department’. Take your shoes off before you enter the shrine, the gentlemen of
the seventies and the early eighties were happy to live in a make-believe land of card
readers, whirring tape drives, and the noisy 600 LPM printers, far away from the reality
that existed on the shop floors and customer service desks where line managers furrowed
their brows, trying to make some sense of the reams of computer stationery that landed
periodically on their desks. Protected by the finance chief, who understood little and
cared even less, the EDP manager counted the years for his next grade change and happily
awaited retirement.

Then came Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and
the advent of the Mac and the PC shook the EDP manager out of his self-imposed
hibernation. As line managers and even a few presumptuous CEOs started understanding the
difference between data processing and management information systems the questions began
to pour in was about the relevance of the data from glass houses. Thus information
strategy planning exercises commenced in earnest and plans were made by the rechristened
systems managers to incorporate the new buzzwords of Local Area Networks, relational
databases, and end-user computing into the information architecture of the firm.

This forced the still-not-too-old
generation of systems chiefs to learn new tricks and a new breed of whizkids started
sprouting in systems groups network administrators, database administrators who became the
right hand of the systems heads and eventually took over the role themselves.

This led to a logical problem of premature
attrition. The software exports boom was also beginning toward the turn of the eighties
into the nineties and 30-year-old systems managers soon set their sights on foreign shores
or, at the very least, started a merry cycle of job hopping, each time moving to a newer
technology shop and another paragraph added to their resumes. In the last few years, we
have seen many ambitious information technology investments come crashing down because of
the mass departure of the core technology teams at critical stages in the process. The
systems manager has become another anachronism, except in those cases where they have won
the confidence of the CEOs as people with capability beyond just running computers-people
charged with the vision of a truly infotech-transformed enterprise, able to contribute
significantly to the overall business strategy of the enterprise. What’s different in the
successful corporations in Europe and North America? The Chief Information Officers (CIOs)
of the larger firms have the stature, self-image, and no doubt the pay packets of any
senior board functionary. This is testimony not just to the value that the organization
places on their role and the importance of the information technology management function
that they perform, but also speaks of the self-worth perceived by these individuals. They
take high-value-high-impact decisions, are feared and revered by the suppliers of all
products and services. The CEO consults them not just on matters that concern technology
but on many other issues of strategic importance to the firm.

How then do we make this happen in India?
The first step has to be taken by the corporate boards themselves by advertising for and
recruiting high caliber professionals with clear independence and the resources they need
to make information technology really play the transformational role it is capable of
doing. And the reciprocal gesture must come from the professional community. There are a
large number of outstanding professionals out there who are capable of standing shoulder
to shoulder with the best of the American CIO community. A little bit of sacrifice, a
commitment to long-range success, and some measure of patriotism and pride in making an
Indian firm truly globally competitive is what we corporate India needs from its CIOs to
march proudly toward the new millennium.

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