Thornton May: IT's epic challenges

The tea leaves are prophesying that epic challenges loom for businesses in the months, years and decades ahead. The worry that is nagging many CEOs and board members is whether their IT leadership teams will be capable of meeting those challenges.

I have many opportunities to hear the concerns of corporate chieftains in the course of conducting research in programs at five universities: the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College at Jacksonville, the CIO Solutions Gallery at Ohio State University, the CIO Practicum at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the CIO Practicum at the University of Kentucky and the Olin Innovation Lab at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.

Among the challenges that these people see ahead of them, two stand out.

Challenge No. 1: IT can't keep thinking small. Scope is a problem for IT leadership. I'm not talking about scope creep, which can plague projects. For IT leadership, the problem is the opposite: scope compression. IT leaders need to give themselves permission to think big, to think outrageously and to think totally outside of the box.

When IT leaders let their days be consumed by the whack-a-mole hell of fixing what's broken and keeping the lights on, IT can't do all that it should for the organization. A new mindset is needed. As Barbra Cooper, retired CIO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., notes, IT today tends to see itself as serving the business. That's laudable as far as it goes, but what's really needed is a leadership state of mind more attuned to leading the business.

If the challenges coming our way are epic, how can we respond with efforts that are minuscule? And yet IT's value impact is being made minuscule, with resources allocated to trivial pursuits. Think of the leaders who populate the great works of classical literature. Agamemnon, for example, was immortalized in Homer's Iliad for forcefully facing the challenge of sacking Troy. That primary challenge was topmost in his mind. He didn't get sidetracked with initiatives to cut the number of ships needed to carry the Greeks to Troy from 1,000 to 800. Such efficiency might have been applauded at the time, but if that had become Agamemnon's focus, at the cost of losing Helen, who would know Agamemnon's name today?

Challenge No. 2: IT must be brutally honest. Sometime during the frenzy of Y2K and the large ERP deployments of a decade or more ago, a significant subset of IT leaders was seduced by the "five nines" -- the concept that everything had to work flawlessly all the time. This had the knock-on effect of making IT the fiercest advocate of the status quo. IT migrated from being an agent of change to being an annihilator of change.

Just about everyone you talk to in the strategy industry has concluded that just about every discipline in just about every vertical market needs to be radically rethought. (See William C. Taylor's brilliant Practically Radical: Not-so-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself and Barbara Kellerman's muckraking The End of Leadership.)

The narrative emerging from IT is in many cases very concerning. On the record, CIOs across the board are saying, "I have everything under control." Meanwhile, in off-the-record, one-on-one interviews, the story is, "Things just aren't working right in my organization."

The CIO needs to be the truth-teller at the vanguard of change and the radical and passionate advocate for the new and the next.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@deanitla).


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon