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Before the last turn of the century, and even shortly thereafter, many enterprise technology trade magazines and pundits opined about the prevalent reality of CIOs not having a place at the boardroom table. IT, the arguments went, was neither being properly aligned with the business nor being recognized as the strategic asset it promised to be.
Whereas the twain have since met in the private sector, for the most part, the same cannot so easily be said among federal government agencies.
"There's kind of a disconnect in that CIOs are not articulating the value of their IT to the business leaders," said Nick Combs, chief technology officer of EMC's federal division. "Many CIOs are now focusing on the network and the underlying core infrastructure. CIOs are following the next wave but the business leaders have a disconnect with IT leaders."
On the crest of that next wave are the government’s Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) and Cloud-First policy - both of which shine a light on that chasm between CIO and agency head.
A survey published by MeriTalk, sponsored by EMC, found that 42 and 40 percent of respondents indicated that cloud computing and data center consolidation, respectively, will drive improved performance outcomes in their agency. That’s perhaps less surprising when taken in context with the finding that fewer than half of responding federal executives view IT as an opportunity and one-third consider it, quite simply, a cost center.
That pretty much syncs up with the MeriTalk study’s statistic that just under half of federal executives believe their agency harnesses IT to its full potential, and the more surprising less than one-quarter who noted that IT helps them, despite the question being framed to encompass an array of ways it could, including analytics for decision-making, cost-savings, increased efficiency, and improving processes or services.
This CIO-agency head rift, at least according to the survey, seems to be one-sided. Indeed, 69 percent indicated that the IT department understands the agency’s mission objectives and, so it follows, that 68 percent said their IT department understands the core challenges.
So why do so few federal executives understand the value in large-scale IT initiatives such as cloud computing and datacenter consolidation – particularly given that these policies came down from the White House?
"Too often IT speaks to itself. IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, et al," explained MeriTalk founder Steve O'Keeffe. "Business owners and agency leaders are less concerned with the ‘how’ as with the 'why' – what does all this mumbo jumbo mean in terms of savings or efficiency? IT gets caught up with its new buzz phrases but fails to make a cohesive business case."
Particular to Cloud-First and FDCCI, making such a cohesive business case has grown increasingly tricky as the Office of Management and Budget’s estimated savings keep boomeranging.
"In the early stages, you hear the business owners in the agencies say 'Show Me the Money.' Then they grow tired of the hyperbole as savings fail to materialize. For example, FDCCI was supposed to deliver $3 billion in savings by 2015. Then the number jumped to $5 billion. Then back to $3 billion. Based on the numbers published by the agencies on FDCCI in October of last year, we'd only saved $14 million," O'Keeffe added. "At some point the IT rattle just becomes noise – and the agencies' business owners tune it out."
In other words, CIOs need to be explaining to agency heads the value of IT in business language, not geek speak – which is essentially resurrected thinking from the days when private sector CIOs were still trying to find that C-suite seat.
"In the private industry, if you don’t do things more efficiently, it's easy to change," EMC’s Combs said. "So I think the private industry gets this a lot better than the federal government."
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