March Madness for CIOs


For college basketball junkies like me, this could very well be the greatest time of the year.

Each year, I watch all the games, listen to the analyses, monitor the polls--all of the usual prep work ahead of the big event: picking my March Madness brackets.

It's never an easy thing, as many of you probably know. You have to balance the desire to win with the natural inclination to pick your favorite team go all the way. You have to play it safe at times, but you also have to take a few risks. And you have to resist the temptation to agonize too heavily over early-round games and focus on the big picture: the Final Four and the finals.

As the recession lingers on, CIOs have to constantly adjust their expectations, and pressures from the business only make it harder.

It's never an easy thing for CIOs. Really, it's a lot like picking brackets.

IT leaders always have their favorite pet projects. But in times like this, they have to be willing to postpone--or outright kill--those initiatives, particularly if they don't deliver immediate business value or contribute to the company's long-term (or recovery) strategy. I'm a huge North Carolina fan, but I can't reasonably pick them to win it all every year. Some CIOs may be champing at the bit to, say, roll out an internal social network, but they have to be reasonable enough to shoot it down if it doesn't deliver a big win for the business.

Every CIO has to play it safe, in good times and bad. In bad times, big ideas like overhauling your application infrastructure or launching a multi-year ERP implementation may have to be put on hold. I may not like a particular team ranked first or second in their bracket, but it's always smart to pick those teams to win at least a few games in the tournament.

They also have to take some risks. Granted, they must be calculated risks; this isn't exactly the time to bet big on something that doesn't have some defined potential for success. CEOs are calling on their IT leaders to be more strategic. That means they have to consider the potential of some emerging technologies to deliver for the business and be able to calculate and communicate that upside. It's like bracket-pickers choosing their upsets. To win, you have to make a few risky picks--whether they come early or late in the tournament--because every year some Cinderella shakes up the brackets.

While many companies are retrenching, others are measuring the risks of deploying new tools or systems that could improve their competitive position in the long term. It's a delicate balancing act, but plenty of CIOs will be forced to do it.

And in a time where many IT chiefs are feeling the need to downsize, minimize and consolidate, they also have to think big. If you're a CIO in a company that's slashing budgets, you need to focus on maximizing what's already working. That can mean boosting the efficiency of your data center or extending a cost-effective system to other areas of your company.

It's like when a talented college hoops team peaks at the end of the year, bringing considerable momentum with them into the tournament. If a team is firing on all cylinders, it's tough to pick against them. The same goes for IT: if a specific application or system is delivering results, you have to exploit it to its fullest.

CIOs have a lot on their plate in March Madness season. Those who make the right picks will earn plenty of points--now and in the future.

(Oh, and I'm picking UNC over Memphis in the final.)


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