The Governing Board is a Strategic Need

Do you have a Governing Board, composed of the enterprise’s leaders, acting as the strategic capstone for IT?

If you don’t, you should — even in cases where a strong CIO, deeply respected by the enterprise, is in charge.

What is a Governing Board?

A Governing Board is the central governance institution bringing the enterprise and IT together. It is — with the exception of the CIO — composed of the leadership of the various arms of the company.

Boards vary in size, depending on corporate complexity: it is not at all uncommon for one to be upward of 15 people, to deal with geographic regions and various functions and divisions in the firm.

Typically, the participants are drawn from the layer just below that of the corporate officers, although it is also common that one or more officers will take part.

There are two key factors in play:

  • The ability to attend to the Board’s affairs: in most large organizations, an officer needs to delegate affairs such as these in many cases anyway.
  • The ability to decide for the area of the enterprise you represent. An attendee’s word must be binding.

What Issues Belong to the Governing Board?

Governing Boards are the lynch-pin for several key IT processes. They are the heart of portfolio management, making the overall allocations of reinvestment vs new investment, and in seeing to it that the investment mix alters IT financial contributions favourably.

This is about IT’s financial contribution, but recognize that often that accrues elsewhere in the business. The Board sees and draws the connections.

The longer-term strategy for technology is the province of the Board — one Board I’ve observed recently concluded several months’ of consideration of the question of “when must we be able to deploy a new system in 90 days or less and at an order of magnitude less cost” (to be competitive) and what this implied for reinvestment and technology choices — as is its integration with and into the larger enterprise strategy.

Compliance and security issues belong to the Board, especially in the setting of limits associated with these. So does the approval of the architectural future state and roadmap, and policy issues.

Constructing a Board:

Governing Boards are a learning experience, and as such develop in phases over time.

Starting out, the potential candidates are approached individually. This is often done by an advisor retained for the purpose, as one key finding must be the issues that will come up in the early life of the Board, and whether or not a candidate will be either too easy-going, or too obstructive, for the Board to function. An outsider often makes for less contentious judgements of these factors.

The candidates are then gathered and a working session to develop enterprise principles of operation around technology and its capabilities is held: typically, there are:

  • Principles for how the business is to evolve,
  • Principles for information and its uses,
  • Principles for relevant technologies.

These reasonably-well correspond to the Enterprise Business, Information and Technology architecture phases in architectural work and indeed should drive future architectures.

The group also works out its own principles of operation as a Board.

Examples of each of these might be:

  • Business: percentage of spending to run what exists is to fall as a share of the total technology spend to not exceed 65%; new systems can be composed and delivered within a ninety day horizon; etc.
  • Information: an information grammar will be delivered and assets modified to use it (e.g. the customer has an address, but the account does not); data summarization done to move information from one system to another will be eliminated in favour of a unified body of data; curation, cataloguing, etc.
  • Technology: any employee may work anywhere on any reasonable device (this would promote web-based systems and wireless technologies, amongst others); reused code is to rise as a percentage of new systems to 50% of the total; etc.
  • Operation of the Board: members may not delegate their attendance, and a decision taken in their absence is binding; etc.

Each organization will have its own set of principles, which are then used to ensure the individual decisions the Board takes continue to add up to the direction that was chosen by the members. There is no “best practice” as this is the evolution of a complex adaptive system, not a simple copyable process.

What a Board is Not:

A Governing Board is not a steering committee. It is not fundamentally about projects, their status or release (although some prioritization as an enterprise, and the portfolio management responsibility to intervene when a steering committee is not ensuring a project will deliver its results as business cased is in the Board’s remit).

It’s also not a talk shop, with all key decisions taken at the executive committee level (it is, in fact, an extension of the company’s top management committee and must be supported as such by the executive officers to succeed).

Nor — as sometimes happens — is it a management group for IT. That’s the CIO’s role.

One last point. When a Governing Board exists, alignment problems and strategic disconnects start to disappear, to be replaced by greater realism about getting value from change.

This is why it’s worth it for a CIO to become “first among equals” at the Board table, rather than be the “strong leader” the magazines like to profile.

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About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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