– CIO Loners and Joiners

Chief Information Officers need “help”. Some might say we need psychiatric “help”. I’d say we especially need the psychiatrist’s couch. Or, perhaps, we need to play the psychiatrist, listening to the people on the couch – our customers.

CIOs need to be “joiners”. We need to be good at establishing relationships, empathizing (putting ourselves into the shoes of others), and we need to be generalists in our businesses.

I was reminded of this again last week as the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) held our annual conference in Raleigh. MIX is composed of about 60 CIOs from larger (over 100,000 population) cities and counties who collaborate together to harness information technology to make their individual governments efficient and effective.

But I’m constantly amazed that we only have 60 members when there are 276 large cities and 578 large counties. So MIX has only 60 members although there are over 850 large cities and counties. So why don’t other government CIOs join up? I’ll get to that.

Yes, CIOs need to be “joiners”. Yet, IT is not a field which easily produces leaders who are collaborators, listeners and joiners. IT engineers and technicians and programmers are naturally heads down “hey guys let’s write this code” or “get this server installed”. We tech types prefer to use e-mail or text message or even face-to-face contact rather than the telephone. In many ways we are “geeks” or “nerds”. I’m often proud to introduce myself as the “Chief Seattle Geek“.

Yet, when we become senior IT managers or CIOs, exactly the opposite skills are required. Here are some specific examples:

  • Empathy with customers. Often this is called “knowing the business” or “customer service”. As a City CIO, my job is not to build and implement IT networks or applications. It is, rather, understanding the business of City government – what the Parks department or the water worker or the cop on the street or the elected officials need to do their job in service to constituents. Sometimes I need to help them adapt new and emerging technology to their businesses. Or push them a bit to do so. One of the things which most surprises me is when a department director says “I’m not technical”, as if they expected me to speak in ones and zeroes or bits and bytes. Dang! I don’t expect YOU to be technical, Ms. Department Director – I expect you to be the chief of all the firefighters or the director of planning and zoning and building permits. And it is MY responsibility to understand YOUR business and help you adapt technology to support it. The City (or County or State or Federal) government is not about” technology” but about serving citizens and people.
  • Empathy with employees. Most employees work for a government because they are proud of their public service. Yet, especially in these times of shrinking budgets and frozen salaries and layoffs, they are under enormous strain. Helping them to stay focused and making sure they have the tools to do their jobs requires a lot of empathy. And a bit of time on the psychiatrist’s couch. And maybe a few shared tears and a crying towel.
  • Re-Inventing the Wheel (collaboration). More than any other job in a government or corporation (except, perhaps, CFO), the CIO has to understand almost all aspects of the business of government, and understand how the pieces fit together. Governments (like all businesses, I suppose), are a set of department silos – an electric utility and a water utility and a transportation department and a police department and a fire department and a parks department and more. While these departments often collaborate on certain functions (such as permit reviews or handling a public emergency), their natural tendency is to operate independently. They prefer to invent their own (or buy their own) tools such as work management, document management and financial management. Unless corralled, the will design their own logos and build their own websites and get their own phone and network systems. It is the job of the CIO (along with CFO, and in support of the government’s elected CEO and other elected officials) to help departments collaborate. To help them work together rather than re-invent the buggy and horsewhip. To help them understand that we are really one government, not a collection of individual departments.

In terms of collaboration, CIOs not only need to prevent re-invention of the wheel within their city or county, but they also need to watch for collaboration and innovation opportunities across the nation.

Is the District of Columbia making itself transparent with an open data catalog and “Apps for Democracy”? Gee, wouldn’t that work in Seattle? Has Harris County, Texas, built an 800 megahertz public safety radio network which allows cops and firefighters from many counties to interoperate and support each other during small disasters and large? Would that work elsewhere? Baltimore and Chicago and Miami-Dade have created innovative new 311 centers and constituent relationship management systems. Wouldn’t something like that make governments more accessible everywhere else?

And that’s where organizations like MIX (for City/County CIOs) or the Digital Communities information sharing group , with 644 members, or NASCIO for State CIOs or even (here in the Seattle area) the Technology Executive Peer Group (about 40 mostly private and some pubic CIOs) come into play. These groups help CIOs to exchange information about applications and best practices and solutions which work.

Yet, out of the hundreds of government CIOs in the nation, only a few join these groups. Are the rest “loners” out on their own? Or are they working so hard within their individual governments – managing their technology workers, building relationships with their own elected officials and business departments and draining their own swamps – that they don’t have time to collaborate with the rest of us who are “joiners”?

Maybe, with comments to this blog, we’ll find out … !


Filed under CIOs, government, MIX

3 responses to “– CIO Loners and Joiners

  1. But, I agree with your thoughts. Our CIO (IT Director) has been proactively promoting collaboration for several years, with less favorable results than desired. 😦

  2. I share Bill’s viewpoint on the lack of sharing that exists, but believe its part of an evolutionary process.

    I have two examples of where sharing and collaboration are truly new skills.

    First, there are many of us that come from the private sector. While we changed our skills to address the “public face” of IT in our business organizations, many of us needed to “walk cautiously” as we offered technology innovations as components of business improvement. In the private venue, if we offered a solution that despite every effort, had a negative impact on revenue or profit, the writing was on the wall that you were not finding the best interest of your client and it might quickly mean it was time to polish up your resume and move on. Given that one of the first comments made as I took my first corporate CIO position, was that the average tenure in the organization for a CIO was about 32 months. I was fortunate, I lasted 38.

    Second, as a public CIO, I’ve told many others that I do collaborate with that I work harder now than I ever have before. Because there’s no P&L linkage to daily activities, perception and public opinion of success requires much more attention than a strong and definitive bottom line. So to that end, “joining” is an activity that takes time and energy. By most accounts, there’s not much time in the day/week/month to make that investment. In my first few years, I was extremely surprised to find that many of the conferences and events were held on weekends. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was the only way many public folks could attend to gain the benefit of the event and make without conflict to the all important every day tasks.

    But I will agree with Bill, the MIX network has been one of the best as far as collaboration and support events can be. Garry Beaty, CIO of Boise, said it best, “it was best event because of the total lack of egoes in the room”. I fully agree. As we each provided experiences and lessons learned, the feedback was positively supportive even when it was in the form of constructive criticsm.

    In my thinking, many CIO’s have not had this type of collaborative experience which may make potential joiners skeptical of the use of these groups and events. As I tell my colleagues when we do meet, one of my greatest revelations in moving to the public sector is my definition of Business Intelligence. In public sector, its the secretive process of finding out what your peers and competitors are doing, and figuring out how to do it first so you appear to be the more innovative CIO at the table. But public sector definition of business intelligence is that of finding out what your peers have done, what mistakes have been made and adopting or replicating those things that have been proven successful and then sharing houw you’ve implemented their ideas and your lessons learned.

    So I understand where many CIO’s have resisted these opportunities, but encourage you to join a few and find those that do present the value. You always have the option to “drop out” if you don’t find the value. The choice to participate or not is certainly yours to make.

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