With the way the role of the CIO has been changing over the years, all the recent talk about IT being seen increasingly as a strategic partner to business must be like music to CIOs' ears. From having the reputation of being cost centers to being considered equal partners of the business is a very significant achievement for any IT leader.
But getting to this stage has been easier said than done. To achieve this status CIOs have branched out from being knowledgeable about technology to being masters of business relationships as well. Various studies have shown the more a CIO is able to influence his peers in the C-suite, the more likely he will be successful in getting his initiatives accepted--especially when such ideas impact functional areas outside the IT realm.
To be able to influence stakeholders and win over their peers, CIOs will need to be more politically savvy and focus on relationship building and fostering better links with relevant stakeholders. And given that CIOs interact with a wide swathe of an organization, the opportunities available to them to win friends are numerous. Yet the truth is fewer CIOs than before are going this extra distance and that's begun to show up in the way their managements think about them. According to CIO research, in the last year, the number of Indian CIOs who are considered competitive differentiators have shrunk from 27 percent of all CIOs to just 14 percent.
Also Read: How CIOs Can Become More Influential
It's this ability to influence--and how CIOs can go about doing so - that we focus on. Given the rapid changes occurring within organizations and business' increasing dependence on technology, there has never been a more opportune time for CIOs to build influence.
From what we have heard from your peers, several common challenges and solutions seem to run through various CIOs experiences.
Challenge 1: Changing the Status Quo
When faced with change it is easy to understand why resistance is the first reaction most people have. Resistance to change has always been a natural human reaction to any disturbance in their environment. Studies have shown that people would rather risk their lives than face change. Take, for example, heart patients who would rather die than change their diet. This individual resistance is amplified when you consider an entire organization's perspective to change.
The reasons for such mistrust of organizational change are plenty. It could arise from an earlier experience with failed projects that didn't satisfy the intended target audience's expectations or from the memory of a long-drawn out process that wore everyone out.
Implementing a project within one's section of an organization is hard; encouraging another business unit to adopt your ideas is difficult on a whole new level. At New Holland Fiat India, Avinash Arora, director ICT, India and Southeast Asia, encountered such resistance when he suggested changing the tractor company's existing dealer-distribution system. Under the earlier system, tractors were delivered directly to dealers from the company's plant in Greater Noida as and when a customer placed an order. The process was time-taking, to say the least.
"If half a month is lost in getting a tractor to the dealer, a customer may switch preference," says Arora, outlining why it was important to streamline the process. In addition, because tractors had to be moved across state lines, they attracted sales tax.
Arora suggested putting up a system that could manage depots at different locations across the country. In his vision, the set up would only require renting a fenced property to store tractors and minimal manpower to handle day-to-day operations, such as securing tractors and updating inventory. The only IT infrastructure required at the depots were a desktop with an Internet connection and a printer.
But this represented a massive shift for the company's workforce who were used to being physically present at a location to carry out their work. Moreover, the company's executives were still not convinced of the expected results of this project. They held the notion that this project would somehow require more infrastructure than Arora believed--and all the associated overheads.
They turned down Arora's proposal.
One of the management's main grudges, as Arora puts it, was "how could IT possibly suggest a business solution?" And associated teams, such as the finance and marketing teams, just couldn't quite get around the fact that their members could work remotely.
"Your idea looks good on presentation and what you have spoken about is nice. But it's wishful thinking," was what, as Arora says, one of the company's president's said on hearing his proposal. The president then cited a similar implementation the company had carried out in Europe--one which had failed.
Arora wasn't surprised by the reluctance he met, and he tackled it head on, adopting a two-pronged approach. First, he presented his case to management through the lens of the project's low cost. He told them that he would only need to spend on setting up meager IT infrastructure. "So even if you provide me with a maximum of Rs 1 lakh, I'm ok with that," Arora remembers telling his management.
It's a figure, Arora says, that's "peanuts" from management's viewpoint.
Second, Arora understood that if he was just able to get the proverbial foot in the door he would be able to convince management of the project's viability. All he needed was to get the ball rolling and he knew the project would come to life. For this, he had to show them that his ideas worked, even on an experimental basis. In fact he had such a firm belief that his approach would work and bring the company a number of benefits that he even suggested, only half jokingly, that he would leave the company if his experiment failed.
"I said, 'if it's a failure, I will face the consequences.' I told them that if it fails I won't come back, and that I will quit the company," he says.
Arora was able to cement the feasibility of the project by tying it into every management's general aversion to expensive projects. Second, by staking his credibility, management was able to see that Arora was completely convinced of the project, and therefore was that much more willing to let him test out his solution.
His project was carried out successfully, without the need to set up extra infrastructure at these locations, apart from renting some fenced property to store the tractors. It's a figure, he says, that isn't large because he rented land far from a city's center, where it was cheaper. Moreover, it didn't even require the physical presence of different members of various teams such as the sales and finance at those sites. The move also ensured that sales tax didn't have to be paid for tractors as now they were being transported to depots as stock product. The overall savings he gained per tractor amounts to around Rs 800.
If you win one you make it easier to win the next one. "The moment you replicate the initial success then the business takes you at your word from then on," Arora says.
Challenge 2: Business Doesn't Believe IT Knows its Processes
CIOs know that getting their ideas accepted by people who are impacted by change--without ruffling any feathers or stepping on any toes--is as important as getting their initial project accepted by management.
This is something that Perfetti Van Melle's, head of ICT, Basant Chaturvedi understands and practices.
During one company meeting, his peers in supply chain and sales complained about the amount of work involved in planning dispatches of Perfetti Van Melle's products. At that time, dispatch data was manually fed into Excel sheets, resulting in a significant time gap between planning dispatch and its execution, with the plan taking almost a day to put in place. Having around 100 trucks that need to dispatch products to 38 locations, the consequent work in manually filling out an Excel sheet was humongous.
Chaturvedi suggested that automating this system would solve their problems. While the solution itself was straightforward, the way to obtain consensus proved trickier. An environment, which is not automated and needs various point of views to be incorporated for automation, needs lots of brainstorming and acceptance of idea by functional team.
To smooth things over, he started off by including major stakeholders in the decision-making process.
"You have to involve all key stakeholders from day one, from the conceptualization stage itself. You have to ask for their views first before giving your own. Then you have to see how to marry both your ideas so that both parties are on board with the proposal," says Chaturvedi.
Moreover, when meeting with stakeholders, it's important to meet them individually and informally, as opposed to formal settings, because, as Chaturvedi puts it, they tend to "guard themselves," at formal meetings and might not be too amenable to accepting ideas.
Once in an informal setting, Chaturvedi suggests letting the other person talk and provide their ideas. The CIO's role here, he says, is to be a good listener and to fill in certain blanks that stakeholders might not have touched upon.
Having followed this consultative approach, Chaturvedi was able to get over the management's initial opposition and have the dispatch automation project up and running. With the new automated system in place, Perfetti has been able to reduce the time required to generate dispatch plans, and maximize space utilization within each truck.
Also Read: CIOs' Relationship with Marketing is Weak
Chaturvedi also took the important step of making sure he--and his team--were aware of how other teams in the organization worked. He did this by sending IT team members to go and observe the work of other teams for about a week. It's a practice they carry out at least once a year, he says. During this time, IT team members are considered a part of that target team, whether it's finance, sales, supply chain, etcetera. They spend their time understanding how a target team works and what challenges they face and how technology can help them. This reinforces the perception that the IT team is part of the overall organization and builds a sense of unity among various teams. More importantly, a sense of reciprocity is established. Now if the CIO were to requisition resources from those other team, leaders would be much more willing to help.
"By binding with the function itself, we are showing that the IT team is not anything different. We are here to do what that (target) team is doing and we are doing it with them," he says. He adds that this will help CIOs get a holistic view of all the teams within an organization and be aware of the interdependencies of every team. This is a vital skill to have especially when CIOs are trying to suggest ideas to other teams or attempting to fill in gaps in ideas proposed by others.
Another IT leader who found himself in a similar position is Farhan Khan, AVP-IT at Radico Khaitan.
The alcoholic beverage manufacturer has a business committee that meets at least once a month to talk about various projects. At one such meeting, one of Khan's business peers spoke about how hard it was getting to manage the company's logistics costs given the rising price of diesel. Others business leaders suggested that they hire consultants to advise them on this issue. Khan suggested that IT could handle the problem and run a proof-of-concept; if then the business wasn't happy with the results they could do things their way.
"Let us prove ourselves. If we can't, you are free to hire anyone you want. But at least give us a chance. We will prove that we have the ability," Khan told the committee.
Khan's suggestion was to implement a transportation management system (TMS). The challenge, Khan learnt, was that the company found it hard to tell if it was using every truck--that its third-party logistics partner sent out--optimally.
Of course the initial stumbling block came in the form of doubts of IT's business knowledge. "You guys have no supply chain experience. How can you add value to it?" was the response from the business. Not one to be swayed by such hurdles, Khan took to marketing his project to change their minds.
Khan wanted to implement the TMS module from SAP. Since SAP was already being used by the IT team for over 10 years, all they had to do was add in a new module. So Khan gave presentations to his business committee members about using this module.
Khan points out that during the meeting he spoke purely in business terms. Moreover, he also said that he tailored his presentation style according to who he was talking to.
"When you are talking to the MD or the chairman, you have to keep everything simple, provide the conclusion up front, and take a results-oriented approach," says Khan, adding that for such a scenario a one-slide presentation is adequate.
But, he points out, that when talking to the business head of a concerned team, it's good to make sure that they know that the CIO is aware of all that is relevant to their business. That means CIOs are required to talk more in depth.
Just as Chaturvedi pointed out, Khan also believes in the idea of meeting stakeholders informally. "In an informal setting people will be more receptive to the ideas you are pitching," says Khan.
Khan went ahead and meet concerned officials and was able to sell the idea to them. When the next business committee meeting came up, these officials championed Khan's solution, thereby giving further credibility to Khan's project in the eyes of the committee.
He was also able to get the approval of the chairman, who told him that "if you (Khan) are confident, we will invest in your project. So you can go ahead." Their confidence in Khan was well placed, as after the solution was implemented, Radico Khaitan was able to save around Rs 7.5 crore.
Challenge 3: Projects Whose Benefits are Not Obvious
In today's tough economic times, any project that is to be implemented has to be justified by the returns it provides--a hard process in itself. Now consider that not only are you the CIO who is trying to get your suggestion across to another team, but that this project has no immediately tangible benefits.
A tough situation for any CIO to face given that the target team you are approaching will most probably dig their heels in and refuse to change their current way of working.
At TATA Global Beverages, group CIO Susheel Navanale, faced such a scenario when trying to implement a global SAP instance at one of the group's subsidiaries abroad, which was using a legacy ERP solution.
The Indian multinational beverages company, which recently reported a profit of Rs 663 crore, has been growing through a spate of acquisitions across different geographies from Russia to the United States. With units located across multiple geographies, Navanale's team identified the need to roll out SAP as in important step towards standardizing processes throughout the company and being able to centralize data so that it could be retrieved easily. The IT roadmap is aligned with the company's five-year business plan, and is validated every year to make sure that the alignment remains.
When Navanale approached this subsidiary with the proposal, they were, unsurprisingly, not enthusiastic about it. They laid out their reasons why they had to put off moving to SAP. First, their business was not yet ready for the move, then they had a people bandwidth and availability issues that would not allow them to share any resources with IT; third, they feared that their operations would be disrupted; and finally, the business benefits, they said, were not too clear to them.
Navanale emphasizes the importance of addressing such concerns immediately. As he would require the best resources from the subsidiary' functional team to be part of the project core team, he suggested that he would backfill those resources as a part of the project cost. This meant hiring temporary staff, so that the team's business wouldn't be disrupted.
In trying to convince the team to adopt this system, Navanale showed them the costs they wound have saved if they moved to SAP, a potent argument in this day and age. He pointed out that just the cost of upgrading their existing ERP and the hardware it worked on, would be substantial and not in line with the IT strategy and roadmap.
Navanale also took to what he calls "socializing" to positively influence the major stakeholders to his point of view.
"You can't just jump in front of a committee, at the last minute, and expect to get the necessary approvals," he says, emphasizing the importance of meeting with the stakeholders beforehand, a strategy Chaturvedi also pointed out.
Keeping concerned folk updated on a project is also of vital importance, he says. Moreover, it's at this stage that CIOs should be able to discern the traits of each of the business peers he has to meet so that he knows how he can interact with them, whether informally, formally and so on. This is the kind of political-savvy Navanale advocates CIOs should have to be able to influence their peers.
This knowledge of a person doesn't need to come from a CIO's personal interaction with business people alone. In Navanale's case he uses the knowledge of his direct reports who are assigned to various functions throughout various geographies to get a better picture of people he would have to deal with.
"You have to get to know the pulse of the concerned people," says Navanale, to be able to effectively influence them. "You have to tune your antenna to their different characteristics."
Another method Navanale used to influence management is to get the key business sponsor to talk about the benefits of implementing a solution he thought of. For instance, when he was trying to get approval to rollout SAP to Australia in the previous year, he took a senior stakeholder to the capital expenditure committee meeting and had her present the case rather than do it himself. Having a business person promote an idea, he says, lends more credibility to a project and got Navanale's project cleared.
Navanale reiterates the need to get proper business sponsorship, as without it CIOs should not bother going about promoting it, a view which Chaturvedi also echoes.