High-performing CIOs know that digital mastery depends on a solid foundation of sound infrastructure, information security, enterprise data governance, and sound IT governance. But for all the emphasis on cutting-edge technology to transform businesses, IT infrastructure too often fails.

Infrastructure, what happens behind the IT screen, and related support activities remain poorly understood, undervalued and mismanaged in 89% of enterprises today, according to a recent study by The Digital Value Institute. This has to change.

Infrastructure conversations – when they do occur – are too often mislabeled as “technology issues” and usually take place too low in the enterprise. In reality, infrastructure talks are talks about the future and must be approached strategically.

Tom Murphy, senior vice president of IT and university IT director at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees, explaining, “There’s no shame in managing things. Operations are really, really difficult and really, really underappreciated and really, really poorly understood until they work.”

Executive recruiters working in the Global 2000 will tell you that the “hot queries” of organizations seeking high-end IT leaders today are for “transformational leaders.” These are usually candidates with experience working in digital organizations – companies founded in the last 10 years that use digital environments as their primary value creation mechanism.

What recruiters won’t tell you is that transformational leaders thrown into mainstream enterprises have a 90+% failure rate. The general consensus is that sic “transformational leaders” fail because they don’t pay enough attention to infrastructure.

Rule #1 for digital transformation (and business success in an uncertain world): Don’t forget the basics. KTLO (keep lights on) is critical.

All success flows through I&O—and non-technology executives need to get on board

Not too long ago, if you lived in Florida, no matter where you wanted to go, there were no direct flights. It didn’t matter where you started or where you were headed—West Palm Beach, Orlando, or Rome—you had to go through Atlanta. Florida residents had a saying: “It doesn’t matter if you’re going to heaven or hell, you had to change planes in Atlanta.” For today’s digital enterprises, “Atlanta” today is infrastructure and operations. All digital success is built on a strategically managed I&O program.

There is general consensus that in the short term, I&O professionals must bring order to the chaos with the longer-term goal of structuring a catalog of services that includes pre-vetted architectures, establishing safeguards for selecting technologies that guide and provide business flexibility.

But sometime after the dotcom crash, it became common practice for IT professionals to try to hide the complexities of IT from the wider business community. This “you don’t need to understand how IT works” pendulum has swung too far, currently landing on non-tech executives who completely abandon any kind of cognitive responsibility for understanding what’s going on behind the screen.

Yes, I’ve heard, “You don’t have to understand the engine if you want to drive a car.” But if you’re a Formula 1 race car driver – that is, the alpha performer in a given category – you do understand the machine you are driving. The same goes for fighter pilots. They understand the capabilities and limitations of their aircraft.

The big questions then are: What do CEOs need to know about I&O and how do they understand it?

Getting non-tech executives up to speed with I&O

Gary King, former CIO at T-Mobile, Chico’s and BarnesandNoble.com, has served on several boards. In both capacities, King recognizes that board members and non-technical business executives will never fully understand the complexity associated with the myriad engineering decisions required daily to keep a modern enterprise running. Still, he suggests these non-IT leaders should pay attention to two critical metrics:

  • Mean time between failures (MTBF) for key infrastructure components
  • Mean time to repair (MTTR) for these key components

Gary also offers tabletop exercises designed to demonstrate the interdependencies and responsibilities of critical infrastructure for a series of “When X Happens” scenarios.

Larry Scott, area manager for digital natives, ISVs and games at Amazon Web Services, explains that there are organizations that are “amazingly sophisticated” in their strategic I&O management. For example, Dr. Vince Kellen, Chief Information Officer at the University of California – San Diego, by optimizing cloud costs and applying intelligent engineering, reduced data storage costs by more than 40%.

Moving forward, Scott suggests tying I&O investments to the business results reported in the annual report and being sensitive to the frequency of I&O reports. Companies that are ahead of the curve with excellent infrastructure equipment have I&O reports on a daily basis. Most do it every month.

At a minimum, organizations should have a senior view of their IT infrastructure, periodically interact with I&O professionals, celebrate daily infrastructure meetings, while maintaining macro-clarity of strategic infrastructure impacts.

After all, without at least a basic understanding of the company’s technical foundation, its leaders cannot expect to know how best to take advantage of it.


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