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Is your CIO making themselves helpless in terms of their people

by Mark P. McDonald  |  February 5, 2010  |  7 Comments

People are the single biggest factor in determining the effectiveness of IT, according to CIOs responding to the 2010 Gartner Executive Programs CIO Survey.  People were the biggest factor in 2009, 2008, 2007 … you get the picture.

According to CIOs this year, the outlook for IT people appears bleak.  Not because they are losing their importance, but its more what CIOs and IT executives are doing or more importantly not doing.

27% of CIOs stated that their organization had the right people with the right skills.  This is a surprisingly small number given the criticality of business and technical skills in executing IT projects and services.  By the way these people are over represented in terms of measures of IT effectiveness, further demonstrating the criticality of people, not money or reporting position to IT success.

The remaining 73% of people say that they do not have the right skills.  While that is a big number, the even bigger surprise is that less than a quarter of that 73% are doing anything about their skills issues.

That’s right only 19% of CIOs have building IT skills as one of their top 5 strategies.  This leaves more than half (54%) without the right skills and no priority to get them.

CIOs who know that they do not have the right skills in IT and are not making those skills a priority are making themselves helpless in their organization.  That helplessness shows up in subtle but important ways including:

  • The business limiting their IT request to things that they know IT can do rather than the things that they need.
  • The IT organization uses its ‘fixed supply’ status as a way to deflect projects and concentrate on keeping people fully allocated.
  • IT sets their schedule ahead of business need by delaying projects until important bottleneck resources become available.

I am not saying that getting the right skills is easy in a world of headcount freezes, training freezes, etc.  Re-skilling is neither impossible nor prohibitively expensive given the availability of online courses, brown bag lunches, the plethora of information available from Gartner, Vendors and other sources.  All of these offer an inexpensive way to build skills and experience.

Market conditions have made some very good people available and provide another source of raising the talent pool in IT.  Given that productivity gap between good people and the average, it can be easy to make the case that hiring a few good motivated people will actually save money, raise service levels and improve quality.

On a final note, CIOs and IT exec’s can point to people who do not want new skills, who are comfortable in their existing roles and technologies and fear change and learning.  That is true, those people do exist and I have met a few.  Think of it this way, those people may be important because the helped get you and IT to where it is today, but are they the people who are going to get you to where you need to be tomorrow?

The inability to have the right people not only weakens IT but it weakens the CIO in the C-suite.

Your people are one of the few things an executive can control over time.  You may inherit an organization, but within a year or two you have the ability to get the right people in the right roles, etc.

If you can’t then your peers see you as more of a manager than an executive and defiantly not a leader.

Category: leadership  strategy  

Tags: it-leadership  it-management  it-organization  management  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Is your CIO making themselves helpless in terms of their people

  1. Mark,
    There are two main points that I see in this issue faced by IT organizations.

    First, the individuals (CIOs) in these organizations do not appear to be looking in the mirror and evaluating their own effectiveness / ineffectiveness and acting upon it. A superior (I use this term intentionally which you’ll see why below), at ANY LEVEL but especially at the C-Level, who a)Acknowledges that their leadership team is incompetent and does nothing or B)Does not recognize their leadership team is incompetent; is not qualified to hold their c-level position. Their job is to do something about it to fix the situation or to hold those subordinates accountable for getting things done and replace or retrain them if necessary

    Second, and this is why I used ‘superior’ above; a C-Level executive is supposed to be a leader NOT a manager and I see less of that each day. Leaders lead, they don’t manage. Their subordinates are the ones who should be managing the execution of the leaders’ vision/direction. When a leader begins to manage, they undermine their subordinates abilities to get anything done because the subordinates will shy away from making any decisions that they feel the ‘leader’ may come down on and change personally. Most subordinates, regardless of level, are perfectly comfortable accepting accountability for the execution of a directive as long as they feel confident that it won’t be micro-managed by their ‘leader’.

    Your research, to me, proves this out yet again and sadly, it also demonstrates that the CIOs are changing their ways to address it.


  2. typo in last line. It should read…..

    Your research, to me, proves this out yet again and sadly, it also demonstrates that the CIOs are NOT changing their ways to address it.


  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by markpmcdonald: CIOs are weakening themselves and act like managers not executives when they do not get the right people, thoughts at

  4. Mark,

    Great research, and interesting perspective, but you write as if this is shocking. CIO’s are humans put in charge of other humans. That means politic’s, ego’s fear, and all the human emotions are playing into every aspect of self-advancement. This is why in corporate we have terms like “stick your neck out”. It’s not about making that last stretch for the finish-line…. So we while we get aggravated with those who do no push their skills to the higher-level. Year after year they work 8-5 and keep their jobs. When you have someone on your team who is a go getter, as a CIO you first embrace them, encourage them. Soon though, it’s only natural to wonder if their hunger and willingness to be on the edge will undermine your value.

    Frankly, until a CIO is ready to be fired, I don’t believe she or he can make the battle charge that is required to invest in what most corporations see as an intangible, momentary investment. (to Carlos’s point, you have to be a leader not manager) Most corporate mindsets are, in my opinion, that of “if we train them they will leave for more money”. Those that are not seeing things this way will prevail though, I agree 100% with you there.

  5. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist says:

    I am not surprised at all about the results of this survey. It is a CLASSIC example of the absence of good governance and the processes fostered by good governance.

    Consider this bullet from the post: “The IT organization uses its ‘fixed supply’ status as a way to deflect projects and concentrate on keeping people fully allocated.”

    What?!? If this organization had good Project and Portfolio Management in place (one of the most critical of the governance processes) they would be asking and answering two fundamental questions: “Should we do the project?” and “CAN we do the project.”

    If indeed the organization did not have adequate or appropriate resources, the answer to the latter question would be “no.” If the answer to the former question is an emphatic “yes”, then it would drive resolution of the resource problems. The PROCESS drives solving the problem, NOT the CIO!

    IT organizations provide technology services and products. Products and services are produced by good processes. People are THE MOST CRITICAL aspect of these IT processes. If the processes are not performing as desired/required, then analysis is conducted. If the cause of the problem is resource-skills, then the Process Owner works with the Resource Owners/Functional Managers to solve this problem (hiring/training).

    When an organization becomes truly process-centric, these owners are also looking ahead at future process requirements and preparing and positioning existing resources to meet these future requirements (through training).

    I know most IT organizations are not process-centric. Instead, they rely on the age-old “Let’s hire the right people and tell them what to do.” The cycles I describe above do not exist and this blog post accurately describes the alternative. Good luck to the CIO trying to fix it.

    Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist

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  7. Mark McDonald says:

    Thanks for all of these comments and I am glad that the post has generated some debate and discussion around the issue of CIOs concentrating on the skills of their people. The comments have come in so fast that I was not able to respond to them individually, so I will make a few comments here:

    Carlos — thanks for point out the questions that superiors should ask themselves to assess their leadership. I agree that we should each ask these questions of ourselves and of our superiors.

    Matthew — The inertia that you describe in your comments is one of the reasons why I wrote the post, I agree that the logic of keeping people ‘unskilled and ignorant” or only retaining the clock punchers is a very corporate style of thinking.

    Its funny when you look at corporate leaders this is one area were they are different from the laggards.

    Leaders know that if you get a reputation for building good people, sure some will leave and that is OK, because others will flock to you because they know that they will get better by working with you.

    The result is a group of people who are improving and at the same time outperforming the other groups.

    A leader is not measured by their personal achievement but by the quality of the people follow them and even more by the quality of people who studied under them.

    Steve — thanks for your comments, but I have to respectfully disagree. In this case governance is often a tool that is used for making excuses for not having the right resources. I take your example about the fixed supply organization and your follow-up questions.

    Should we do the project? is a business issue that revolves around the efficacy of the proposed solution to the business problems it is trying to solve. I get the sense from your comment that you think that this question is an IT issue. If it is taken as an IT issue than the performance profile of the entire company is bounded by the skill set in IT — an even bigger reason to invest in skills.

    Can we do the project? Is an IT governance question, yes, but it is often answered in the context of their current skill questions. Based on that rubric just about every new project would get voted down. That only traps the IT organization i a rut of working their way into obsolescence. I agree that the question can we do the project is important, but perhaps “what do we need to do the project?” may produce another answer and again support the need to build/invest in skills.

    Steve, I apologize if I have misread your comments, but they seem to put process as the answer when an integrated approach, one aimed at creating core capabilities that are then exploited by processes offers a path forward.

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