Getting his point across about the role of CIOs


John Kost believes passionately in the role of chief information officer. Many years of experience convince him that state bodies need a strategic approach to IT, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

THE ROLE OF chief information officer remains one of the most poorly understood within government organisations worldwide – when it exists at all.

So says John Kost, a group vice-president at analyst Gartner and a determined man who has set out to change the misunderstanding. He knows what he’s talking about – he was the first-ever state CIO in the US, in Michigan, over 20 years ago.

He now spends his time talking at very high level to governments internationally, and was recently here to advise the Irish Government about large-scale projects and the role of CIO – a position the previous government considered creating. Many countries do have CIOs, he says, noting that Israel has just established such a position.

Kost readily admits he was, at least under common assumptions about the role, an unlikely candidate for CIO. He had no background in information technology, and at the time, worked for John Engler, the Republican governor of Michigan, as head of policy.

“He wanted to make radical changes, but was frustrated,” says Kost. “The message he was getting was that the technology was too old to do the things that he wanted to do.” So, the governor asked Kost: “How do we turn IT into an asset, rather than a liability?”

Kost consulted large, Michigan-based companies such as Kmart, Ford and Dow to talk to their corporate chief information officers about how they used and managed their IT.

“And they said, you need a CIO.” So Kost went back and told the governor that Michigan needed a statewide CIO: not somebody who would only be in charge of IT, but someone who would take infrastructure management away from the departments and let them focus on applications development, business processes and customer focus.

“He came back and said, ‘I love the plan – and I want you to be the CIO’,” laughs Kost.

Kost made significant changes in how IT was managed, based on best practice in the corporate world, as well as shaping information-based strategy. He says the key lesson that he took away from his time as CIO – he was there until 1996 – was that the CIO has to respond to the type of person in the leadership role of the organisation.

Unfortunately, he says, many organisations still do not view the CIO as a strategic position and instead, consign him or her to a kind of high-level IT management position with little buy-in at board level. At the same time, many traditional CIOs, from strong IT backgrounds, are more comfortable simply managing the technology, and far less comfortable with managing business processes and innovation in the organisation.

The inclination of government leaders can be to make the CIO role a basic managerial role. “IT makes news a lot – it’s often the failure of an IT project that makes headlines – so political leaders often create the CIO role to make technology go away.”

Usually, governments and semi-state organisations have a pretty good idea of why they need a CIO, he says, and his own job tends to be helping them to determine what type of CIO they want. “They can be anything from a VC to managing IT; they can do broad-level policy or specific niches. The question I ask is, what do you want to accomplish politically? You need to be very clear in your mind what problems you want solved.”

One of the biggest issues he sees is that the job of the CIO often is not clearly aligned to what the government wants them to do. He says that in most cases, the bar for the job is set quite low.

Gartner has a five-level grading score that they use for analysing CIO performance, and he says in excess of 75 per cent of CIOs on a survey were performing too low.

“It’s quite rare for anyone to be above level 2, and most are at level 1. It’s entirely possible that a CIO could deliver a 4 or 5, but the likelihood of a government leader expecting a level 4-5 is very low. The CIO, if anything, is usually outpacing the organisation – they have more ability than is demanded.”

Is this because government leaders have a wrong view of what a CIO is? “It’s not just the wrong view of what it is, but a fear of it,” he says. Thus, CIOs almost always run into what he half-jokingly calls “iwopa” – “the impenetrable wall of political apathy”.

So in his work with CIOs, he focuses on the skills they will need to work with the political leader, whether it be a minister, a department secretary, a governor or the national leader. CIOs need to be people-focused strategists, looking for ways of working around roadblocks and building allies, he says.

And on the flipside, when he works with governments, he helps department heads to understand IT and to manage the CIO effectively, not least because civil servants rarely have had any IT or business training. He says most of the time he can see problems immediately in government projects that go beyond just putting a CIO in place. And most of the time, the problems have to do with the failure of government leaders to manage projects effectively.

And does he bluntly tell them that? He grins. “I do like to swing a 2x4.”

Parliamentary governments are a more complicated environment in which to run projects or bring in a CIO, he says. “Decision-making and governance are very difficult – there are so many relationships. In the US, one person is accountable. You’re running for office as one person versus a coalition government, where everything’s in negotiation.”

So, when he goes in to speak to governments, he starts by asking people to tell him about the leader. “And from there, we develop a governance strategy based on what they’re going to need to work with. Most projects fail because of governance. So the first thing I do is determine is governance going to be a problem.”

And his advice for CIOs? “Understand who your decision-makers are and what motivates them. And then try to establish credibility by early, quick, small wins. Always speak in terms that the person spoken to understands. And be very aware of government subprocesses like HR and procurement.”

Ultimately, the CIO job is far more about relationships with other people and, in particular, figuring out the worries of the person in the leadership role and finding ways to address them.

“It’s a very personal thing. Look, I wasn’t appointed CIO in Michigan because of my deep and personal knowledge of IT,” he laughs, having had none – “but because the governor trusted me”.

Understand who your decision-makers are and what motivates them. And then try to establish credibility by early, quick, small wins

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