IT Leadership – Brand Managers for CIOs?

Last week I spoke with Rich Esposito, IBM VP, IT Strategy and Architecture Services for IBM’s Global Technology Services, on how they were helping IT organizations better prepare to assimilate Cloud computing. In our discussion, I learned something that at first seemed shocking, then funny, then curiously relevant and then simply useful — all within a second or two of hearing. Rich told me that in his conversations with CIOs, he sees a growing interest to improve their “brand image” and relationships with the business. With the importance of technology for most any business or government agency, a clear, strong image of the companies’ technology capabilities can be an advantage.

At first this struck me as odd, since IT professionals — including many executives sadly — often struggle to communicate basic organizational and process issues beyond sheer technology let alone think so globally as to consider a “brand” or “image” associated for the CIO. I immediately thought of Dilbert, who, of course, is a “brand image” (though not at a CIO level). Still, if you go to most businesses and ask what they think about IT, it’s likely to show up as a picturesque figure stooped inside a cubicle so ridden with acronyms as to be, at least at times, comic. In other words, Dilbert.

Following this logic, CIO’s manage a cadre of Dilberts and so have the awkward stature of either a primus inter pares or something like a “super Dilbert” or else a normal guy, averse to risk, who happens to dress better than most of the people who report to him and is stuck in the middle between a sea of Dilberts and an ocean laden with business sharks. But I also realized that things really are changing inside IT, in part because they have to, and in part out of natural evolution. IT is gradually transitioning beyond the traditional, stove-piped “academic model” in which IT professionals affiliate chiefly around skill set rather than processes and policies aimed at optimizing services. In the former model, the IT-eccentric and the academic-eccentric have a lot in common both in heritage, behavior and image.

I don’t mean to knock this eccentric character altogether, especially since, in many respects I’m probably one myself, but IT organizations depend on more effective modes of collaboration and sharing information than isolated technology eccentrics are likely to exhibit on their own. This means more attention to dialog and communication, and heightened awareness of overarching objectives surrounding business needs and service priorities. Doing this creatively and intelligently, and in a way that’s at once pragmatic, embracing and transformational is not only hard to say, it’s practically requires black magic to achieve. And maybe that’s where a brand image can be so useful.

Years ago, I spent the better part of a week in the company of a professional brand manager traipsing around southern France (I know, tough work but someone had to do it). This was, in fact, when I worked for IBM in the early 90s. We were looking to help the networking team create a “three tiered stool” in which hardware and software brands could come together in a single overarching brand.

A lot got in the way of us succeeding — far beyond branding. It was era in which client/server was rocketing forward and the fateful SNA/SNMP wars weren’t going very well for our team. But I did learn some of the basics of branding and got respect for one central idea. In spite of all the extravagant hype invested in fancy branding presentations, branding does force you to make some core decisions. To use what may seem a slightly over inflated analogy: branding is a kind of poetry that asks you to think in a condensed way about who you are, what you wish to be, and how you want to communicate that to the world around you.

In these respects, come to think of it, branding and best practices, like ITIL and Six Sigma, are quite complementary. The thinking behind branding can inform you on how and where you go with plans to coordinate processes across IT. While, in turn, branding can be itself informed by the some of the deeper organizational and cultural implications behind resources such as ITIL’s Service Strategy.

Rich singled out four ways in which the business views IT. These are commodity, utility, provider and enabler, which form a progression not unlike those I might associate with EMA’s Maturity Model for IT (Reactive Infrastructure, Active Operational, Proactive Service-Oriented, Dynamic Business-Driven.) IBM pulls these four views of IT in what it calls its CUPE analysis. Part of this analysis consists of questions to help an IT organization and its CIO understand I would call its “as-is” state, and then document a desired, achievable direction.

Your IT organization is going through what I would argue is probably the most dramatic transformation of the last 30 years. And no, this isn’t about Cloud, albeit Cloud can be a catalyst. This transformation is about evolving cross-domain politics, processes, and dialog in a way that helps you to optimize what your organization can do, and how it can more proactively engage in business and organizational requirements. These requirements in the not-so-distant future may go far beyond traditional IT concerns. And while branding who you are, and what you and your organization can be may not bring you 30 seconds on the Super Bowl it can help you to redefine your organization internally, while meaningfully increase the effectiveness with which you and your business colleagues engage.

Dennis Drogseth is VP of Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates, an industry research firm focused on IT management. Dennis can be reached at [email protected].