Posted by: Long Huynh | May 27, 2009

CIO: How Do You Stay Relevant to Business? – Part 2

 UPDATE.- If you like to comment on this post, please come over to its new home at www.tao-of-living.com.

This is a follow-up on an earlier post this week, CIO: How Do You Stay Relevant to Business? in which I suggested that the IT organization and its commander-in-chief, the CIO, could learn a lesson or two about Relevancy from one of the best organizations, the U.S. Marine Corps. Despite its repeatedly demonstrated value in war time, the Corps has struggled occasionally to stay relevant in peace time. Only through foresight, vision and perseverence that the Corps raised itself to the challenge and occupies today a privileged place in the hearts and minds of the U.S. military brain trust.

IT Relevancy to Business: Is It an Issue?

The pertinent question here is whether IT today encounters a similar issue of Relevancy to business, where information technologies are no longer in the exclusive control of IT. The short answer is Yes.

Ever since the publication of the article “IT Doesn’t Matter” by Nicholas Carr in the May 2003 edition of the Harvard Business Review, there was an avalanche of responses (1) from the IT world which, like in any good and spirited debates, took position on both sides of the fence. Carr and his supporters argued that IT has reached a commodity status therefore IT is no longer of strategic value to business. His antagonists (including such luminaries as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Intel’s Craig Barrett and Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy) offered a counter-argument that IT will always matter to business, like it or not. I won’t take side in this debate here, except to say that the article has sowed the seed of doubt in the mind of many business managers.

Almost exactly six years later, another article by Bob Evans in the April 22, 2009 edition of InformationWeek, Prove It’s Business Value to Your CEO – Or Else, raised the question of IT relevance again. This time, it’s the CIO who is challenged. In a mock “Dear Chris” letter from the CEO, he has pointedly asked the question:

“In the absence of that visibility [of the business value IT delivers], Chris, how can I as CEO get an accurate fix on how you and your team are doing? (…) and if you can’t quantify for me how you’re doing that, then I can’t have you as a CIO.”

The tone maybe a little overdramatized but the depicted situation is happening across Corporate Ammerica and many CIOs are squeezed hard by their boards.

How Did the Corps Manage To Stay Relevant?

Coming back now to the history of the Corps. You have learned of the Corps’ dark period between the end of World War II (1945) and the start of the Korean War (1950). And of the circumstances under which the Corps managed to gain 3 stays of execution, two through sheer determination of its leaders and one through an opportunity (2). You may learn that since the Inchon landing in September 1950, there was no looking back for the Corps and its Marines. Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq … there was no theater of conflict that didn’t see the presence of the Marines as the first response team in place. In its own words (3), “the Marines have always been looked upon as a fighting force without equal, capable of exceptional accomplishment in the face of insurmountable odds.”Today, the Corps has become the de-facto American “force de frappe” whenever and wherever there is chaos and conflict to be put out.

The Corps has arrived at this position not because of its superiority over other services in terms of technologies or combat individuals. Its Marines share the same or similar weaponry, have the same or similar training facilities, engage in the same or similar combat situations as the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. The big difference is that while other services may have the required competencies, their engagement is limited to the set plays developed specifically for them (e.g. air strikes before ground attacks against fortified positions); whereas the Marines can cover virtually all situations more effectively and with better speed. They have learned to focus on a few core competencies that are hard to acquire, to manage the expectations by almost always guarantee the outcomes and to foster a unique set of values (Honor, Courage and Commitment) that set them apart as “The Few, the Proud.”

What Lessons Today’s IT Organization Can Learn From the Corps?

The first lesson is about Competency: the Corps is a competency-based organization. But rather than picking specific threat-based combat competencies (i.e. associated with specific target enemies) like other services, the Corps focuses on 2 timeless competencies: Solving complex situations and Speed. As the enemies change faces, the Corps stays relevant and remains just as effective against the ethnic-cleansing warlords of the 90’s or the al-Qaeda terrorists of today as it did against the Cold War communists of the 50-60-70’s.

The second lesson is about Outcome: the Corps is an outcome-oriented organization. Expected outcomes become mission orders. No questions asked. Results delivered. That way, the Corps has gained top of mind whenever a situation arises that threatens world peace and the safety of nations.

The third lesson is about Value: the Corps is a value-driven organization. No other service persons live their service like the Marines. While an Army serviceman may say: “I am in the Army”, a Marine will say: “I am a Marine” with the full understanding of what it means. The Corps has continuously showcased its values throughout its 234 years of existence and has institutionalized them in a formal Marine Corps Values Program in 1996 via the Marine Corps Order 1500.56.

The sought-after favorable Outcomes cannot be consistently delivered without a set of superior Competencies. Hard-to-master Competencies such as the capability to solve complex situations don’t come by without the devotion and even sacrifice of the troops involved. Their devotion / sacrifice, in turn, wouldn’t happen if they don’t believe in and live out the Corps Values.

Can IT become a competency-based, result-oriented, value-driven organization just as the Corps? I believe that some do and some will. But there will be casualties. For the sake of your business, let reflect on these lessons and bring IT to a higher level of performance so that IT will stay relevant to the Business as much as the Corps to the United States of America.

Epilogue

I would like to wrap up this post with a lighthearted remark (yet containing an element of truth) from Alastair Behenna, the CIO of Harvey Nash, a global professional recruitment consultancy and IT outsourcing service provider, written in his blog post A message from the trenches:

“It really is the best of times for Information Technology and technologists to show what they can do, with less formality, less money and more courage. Using our natural speed and responsiveness, our capability to assimilate huge chunks of information to good effect and our innate ability to deliver against the odds. Combine this with our natural good looks, wit and charm and we are unassailable.”

What do you think?

What kind of competencies an effective IT organization should develop?

How can IT become a “force without equal, capable of exceptional accomplishment in the face of insurmountable odds” such as the Corps?

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(1) You can get a rather detailed summary of these responses here. My favorite piece is this article by James Champy, the Business Re-engineering guru, in Fast Company.

(2) In order to appreciate the Korean “opportunity”, you should understand that:

  • the U.S. has entered the Korean War first with the Air Force then with the Army ground troops, to no avail against the North Korean troops;
  • the Marine Commandant, General Clifton B.Gates, was invited to sit in a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting in early July 1950 as a guest;
  • he seized the opportunity to offer a (non-existent) Marine Air-Ground Brigade, a risky offer which was eagerly accepted;
  • the new Brigade, the 1st Provisional, was hastily cobbled together from a stripped down 1st Division and recruits from other units within days;
  • this under-strength Brigade has set sail from San Diego on July 12, 1950 and landed in Pusan on August 2, 1950, exactly one month since its creation.

(3) Quote extracted from the Marine Corps Order 1500.56 (issued December 16, 1996).

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