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The CIO as Gatekeeper

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October 01, 2014
Role of the CIO
Jon Inge

Despite a longstanding tradition of IT being the department that “don’t get no respect” – at least until something breaks – more and more hotel companies now involve IT in key strategic and operational decisions, recognizing the vital importance of technology in supporting these areas. Nevertheless, leading the IT function requires a CIO to juggle many roles, from the mundane (keeping all the existing systems running) through the cooperative (working with other divisions to add functions and systems they need), to the innovative (staying aware of technology innovations in the world at large and bringing forward those that could help transform the business). It’s no surprise that consultant Bob Lewis memorably refers to leading IT as the hardest job in the world.

Add to that a new role for the CIO: today he or she must also act as a gatekeeper, making sure that the company keeps within legal bounds with regards to the USA’s CAN-SPAM act and the Canadian Anti-Spam Law (amongst other legislation) and that major fines and costly reparations from breaches of PCI and PII requirements are avoided. Encouraging innovation while keeping operations legal and the technology architecture cohesive, reliable and supportable may be the trickiest balancing act of all. No one wants to be dubbed C-I-No.

Technical competence in a CIO is obviously a given, but probably the key management skill required is the same for a CIO as for any other senior position: building relationships. When he was a senior leader at Ford, Lee Iacocca told the story of a highly skilled technical department head who was up for promotion. “He’s absolutely brilliant,” was the word, “he knows everything about our cars and has great visions for improving them. His only drawback is that he doesn’t get on with people very well… That’s a real problem,” said Iacocca, “because all we have around here are people.”

Maintaining relationships throughout the company is essential not just for the sake of good communications but also as a key to another critical skill, that of maintaining a high state of awareness. It’s important to know not only what’s happening in the technical world but also what challenges other departments are facing and what ideas they might be pursuing. This isn’t just a task for the leaders; everyone in IT needs to know people in other areas. This keeps them all better informed and thinking about cross-department issues, and it’s much easier to introduce new concepts to people you’ve talked with for years.

Some of those new concepts might include the awareness that each department can’t just go off and buy any new application that strikes its fancy, expecting IT to bolt it into the network and make it run smoothly with everything else. This is where IT really does have to act as a gatekeeper, and where relationships are crucial to success. New systems must be able to fit into the existing architecture with minimum disruption (which means, of course, that there must be a defined architecture in the first place). Maintaining good relationships with the other department heads will help them understand why this is critical to the smooth running of the property and to getting complete and accurate data and analyses to support their decisions. 

Another key aspect that helps with these discussions is keeping aware of what’s happening in the world in general, reading widely inside and outside the industry, talking with peers and thinking about wider concepts. Early identification of trends that might help the operation allows a CIO to think about what would need to be in place to take advantage of said trends if they turn into something real, and reading widely helps identify alternative approaches if they have operational advantages but don’t fit the current architecture. 

It’s often tempting to jump on a new idea to gain a short-term advantage, but to do that the instigator needs a high tolerance for the inevitable unforeseen challenges, and so does the whole operation. Some people thrive on this kind of leading-edge excitement, but for most people, waiting until someone else has worked out the initial bugs and then being ready to implement the new approach is much more realistic. Being second means you can avoid some of the pioneer’s arrows, but you need to have thought about it ahead of time so you can move promptly if and when needed. The first-mover advantage is often illusory, but the last one to the trough usually goes hungry.

It’s been said that the two most powerful words in the English language are “I want,” and we all have stories of CEOs coming in with the first iPads® and saying, “Make this work on our network so I can get my reports at home.” Just pointing out the technical challenges makes the CIO look like the chief obstruction officer, especially when equivalent alternatives may be coming but aren’t immediately available. But these days there are also legal and data privacy issues to address, and this is where the CIO has a legitimate gatekeeper role to play that makes the objections to the boss’s request less personal. Given the large fines and legal penalties associated with PCI requirements and personally identifiable data security, sometimes the CIO, just like the HR director, has to say, “Ignore this and you might go to jail.” 

Gatekeepers may have a thankless job, but they’re there for a reason. CIOs are apt to find that the extra responsibility actually helps them hold the line on fitting innovation into an effective, structured environment.

Jon Inge is an independent consultant specializing in technology at the property level. He can be reached at jon@joninge.com or at (206) 546-0966.

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