Speaking to an audience of C-level execs, HP CEO Mark Hurd said that when he hears top executives tell him that their IT is bad, his first reaction is that the real problem is probably a bad CEO.
In an interview/presentation at last week's Gartner Symposium, Hurd was answering a broad question about the interplay between IT and business processes, and whether HP should be aiming its messages at CEOs focused on business outcomes or IT leaders focused (according to the question) on technology.
Hurd struggled initially with his reply—he clearly wanted the audience to know he and HP are big-picture folks who think about things that their customers' CEOs think about, but he also didn't want his CIO audience to think his standard practice is to go over their heads, and it took him a bit to tie all those threads together, and I'll get to that in a moment. But I want to focus on a startling correlation he made about the role that customer-side CEOs play in situations where a company's IT is bloated, backward, expensive, and ineffective:
"Because I'll tell you, I don't know how many CEOs are in the audience here, but when you show me bad IT—and I meet a lot of CEOs, and do a lot of talks in front of CEOs—and I get a lot of CIOs who tell me how bad their IT is. My first reaction—to be very frank—is it's probably a bad CEO, as opposed to bad IT."
That is a profound insight—I've never heard someone express that type of correlation so directly before: in 99% of the cases where bad IT's an issue, the fall-guy is the CIO, right? IT is the CIO's responsibility, so IT's failure is the CIO's failure, and the CIO's failure means the CIO's ouster, and the CEO is seen as a sharpy for rooting out the ineffective IT guy.
But what Hurd is saying—and yes, I know that Mark Hurd is an extremely smart guy and he certainly knew that the majority of his audience was CIOs, and that they'd get a kick out of such a correlation—is that the deeper fault lies with the top leader in the company, who failed to drive fundamental connections across business processes, applications, and IT. And that if the IT element in that equation is bad, then while the CIO might be guilty, the CEO surely is.
(For more details and analyses on HP's strategy and competitive issues, be sure to check out the "Recommended Reading" list at the end of this column.)
Because as Hurd went on to say about the job of the CEO: "At the end of the day, [the CEO has] gotta get this part [business processes] of the business right to be able to align IT throughout the company. It's no different than aligning your sales organization, aligning your R&D, aligning any other piece of it."
The context of the formulation of Hurd's Corollary—Bad IT = Bad CEO—was intriguing as well, because it came in the midst of a somewhat awkward answer from Hurd about whether HP aspires to move its executive connections within its global customers' C-suites beyond the CIO to the CEO and the LOB heads as Hewlett-Packard's products and services become more intensely intertwined with those customers' business processes and business outcomes.
As Hurd himself says, he gives lots of talks to CEO groups and meets with lots of customers, and it shows: Hurd is a polished and compelling speaker. But this one whole line of questioning—the interplay among his customers of the CEO and the CIO, and whether HP is at a disadvantage in focusing on the IT leader as the primary target versus the businessperson focused on business outcomes—threw Hurd off his game a bit. Here's what he said via my transcription:
"Oh I certainly think—and particularly with our acquisition and move into the services space—we want to play a role of helping IT—I wanna make sure I'm clear—our role isn't—and it's a very fine line you touch here, David—uh, we wanna be viewed as somebody who helps IT accomplish their objectives. To the degree we assist with trying to align the business with IT, that is an asset I think we can bring.
"One of the things we actually did here, David, was we followed our own process and basically scripted not only what we did, but also the mistakes we made. We actually made a few as we went through the process. So we think we can bring a lot of value to that alignment discussion between business and IT."
And Hurd then went back yet again to reassure the CIOs in the audience that he and HP are not trying to cut them out of the discussions—for myself, I don't think he needed to repeat that point for a third time, but Hurd knows his audience quite well and so he continued:
"At the same time, I wanna make sure I'm clear to the audience: it's not like us to show up to the CEO and say, 'I got a really big idea: why don't you just give me all the IT and I'll do it for ya.' We'd be more likely to come to the CIO and the IT organization and say, 'How can we help you craft a transformation plan that will be an asset to the company?" Then he went into his discussion of bad IT having its roots in the CEO's office.
So, of all that, you need to remember Hurd's Corolloary: Bad IT = Bad CEO. And if you feel your company's IT is bad or even just sub-par, then the next time you have a performance discussion with your CEO, have a copy of Hurd's remarks handy. It probably won't help much, but it might make your CEO rethink things a little bit. And that's a lot better than nothing.
Bob Evans is senior VP and director of
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