IT Gets Down to Business

The process-oriented enterprise – where work is accomplished not by using large monolithic applications like CRM but by moving through focused “processes” like order to cash – is turning into the next battleground in the never-ending struggle to define, redefine, and define yet again the role of the CIO.

Pity the CIO, whose job security can be as fleeting as the next three-letter technology acronym, and whose power, budget, and authority is in a continual state of flux. It’s one of the more thankless tasks in a thankless world: just when the data center was cementing the CIO’s power, distributed computing came to take it away.

And just as the Y2K and the ERP revolution was restoring the CIO’s might, the recession and a business-oriented focus for software sales conspired to cut the CIO down to size.

So it should be no surprise that each new trend in the market is in no small part an inflection point – for good or bad – in the waxing and waning power of the CIO. The process-oriented enterprise – with its business modeling, web services and work flow technology – is definitely one such inflection point.

But whereas I would have expected that the extremely positive business benefits of process-orientation would mean a further erosion in the CIO’s power, it turns out that the opposite is true. CIOs are using the process shift to carve out a new power center in their off-and-on-again careers.

Of course, some of this is simply a matter of survival. Ask a CIO three years ago if he or she was part of the business side of the enterprise, and you would have heard a least a loud guffaw or two, if not a vociferous denial.

Today, no CIO worth his or her budget authority would fail claim to be a business executive first and foremost. With every pundit in the software industry saying that buying power has shifted to the business side, it makes sense that the CIO would try to make the shift too. Chief Business Officer, if you please.

The latest indication of this new business-orientation comes to me from Rod Favaron, the CEO of business process management vendor Lombardi Software. Rod tells me that while 30 percent of his prospective sales used to come from the IT side, lately it’s been more like 70 percent. This despite the fact that what Lombardi and its competitors do best is deliver highly-focused business processes targeted at the business side of the house.

This shift isn’t just about preserving the CIO’s prerogative, however. The uptake in interest in business processes and related technology has hit the business side in a big way. So big that the CIO is stepping in to make sure that a hodge-podge of unworkable technology silos don’t emerge from a bunch of ad-hoc projects getting funded using different technologies and standards.

CIOs are smart people, after all. They realize that the only way a process-deficient enterprise will succeed in turning its un-automated processes into smoothly running software will be to make sure that everyone is singing from the same technology hymnal.

And sing they will. The nice thing about the CIO as business process traffic cop is that it’s exactly what’s needed in a world where process and software and business all blend together in pursuit of greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Whereas the business side can be left to buy a $300,000 point solution that can return $900,000 in value in 10 months, it’s never a good idea to let individual business managers begin to dictate changes that will impact technology and infrastructure choice across the enterprise.

SAP’s Shai Agassi defines this new role as Chief Process Innovation Officer – a recognition of the notion that process replaces information as the focus of the CIO’s existence.

I think that whatever you call it, the last word in CIO will remain the most important: Officer. As in process traffic cop, as in policing the IT environment, as in preserving and protecting IT assets. And if that means adding business and process to the CIO’s information mandate, so be it.

We’re at another major inflection point for the CIO, and this one looks like it’s definitely trending up.