IT Projects are Innovation Investments

Mark Roman
Chief Information Officer 
Simon Fraser University

February 2017

Sometimes as a CIO I feel like Bill Murray’s character Phil in the movie Groundhog Day. Every few years I seem to wake up and do the same project all over again. But the good news is that I am seeing the project with a different perspective each time, and hopefully learning more each time.

For example, over 20 years ago I ran an email and calendaring system replacement project. We moved an entire insurance company from a mainframe email system to a bright and shiny new client/server email and calendaring system. Everybody believed it was an IT project. The shift from the big clunky green screen terminals to PCs with a graphical user interface was a big technology shock for the whole company. We all viewed the project as a massive technology change, so of course we simply labelled the project as an IT project. The business case to justify the change focused almost entirely on the how the new technology would improve the efficiency of the company.

Fast forward a decade and as a CIO I upgraded a large research university to new email system. This time the change had a somewhat different focus. Although the change brought a vastly new technology into use, the project also had to focus on how to change a culture with firmly rooted processes in existing systems. The calendaring component of email was such an integral component of everyone’s workflow that socializing the innovation became just as important as the technology. Our business case emphasized the need to help people through the dramatic process changes invoked by the new technology.

Another decade later and I’m the CIO at an even larger institution and I find myself championing the move towards a new email system. But this time the business case is intensely different. We are not debating the merits of particular technologies because that’s a well understood activity. Nor are we concerned with how to socialize the new innovation because that’s also a well worn path. The debate now focuses on the strategic impact of the project on our organization. Today we are concerned about ethical issues arising from where our data should reside.

This evolutionary path requires a different kind of business case that addresses much more fundamental questions.

  • Is it safer to keep data on your own premises where you can keep a watchful eye on it?
  • Can a behemoth IT services company afford to provide better security than your local IT department?
  • Are the people who are going to use a new system comfortable with their data residing in a potentially foreign jurisdiction?
  • Will the users of a new system be fully cognizant of what could happen to their personal information in world where data flows are borderless?

These are not technology questions.  

The fundamental nature of how organizations view IT projects has transformed. Culturally, organizations are so familiar with technology change that it is not nearly as dramatic as it once was. The traditional technology components have faded so far into the background that we can no longer use the traditional IT model. When even a simple email upgrade becomes a strategic decision, we need to think differently about all IT projects. Organizations must view IT projects as innovation investments where their business cases provide answers to far more strategic demands.

Much like Bill Murray’s Phil from Groundhog Day, I’m getting better every time I wake up with the same project. On the morning I wake up and the radio is finally playing a different song, I’m sure we will be replacing email with global telepathic interconnectivity … and that will be a fun project.

 

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