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10 Essential Reads For CIOs, CTOs and IT Managers

by Phillip Rhodes

Posted on Monday May 13, 2013 at 12:04PM in Technology

Over the past 10 years or so, IT has found itself under fire from many quarters. "Thought Leaders" like Nicholas Carr write about how IT Doesn't Matter (we'll revisit that in a future blog post) and other pundits openly ask Is The CIO Dead?

The truth, of course, is that this is mostly hyperbole, but with an element of truth hidden underneath. And that element of truth is that IT does matter and CIOs are important... to the extent that the add value to the business. This means that IT leaders: CIOs, CTOs, and Directors of IT must move beyond a single-minded focus on technology, and begin to take a broader view of the organization, and they must understand how information technology provides capabilities that support and enable business strategy. And in order to truly have a "seat at the table" alongside the CEO, CFO and other traditionally respected positions within the organization, IT leaders must become trusted partners who routinely demonstrate the ability to add essential strategic insights to the conversation. To this end, I posit that CIOs and their ilk should set down the latest Hadoop book, close the Cassandra and Mesos tabs in their browsers, cancel the meeting with the sales guy from Microsoft, lock the door, and sit down and focus on business strategy and how technological capabilities can create new strategic opportunities for the organization, and support existing strategic initiatives.

As part of the "Re-education of the IT Leader", there are a handful of foundational works on business strategy, and a few titles on the intersection of strategy and technology, that I recommend to all technology leaders who want to gain more influence and relevance within their organization, and who want to contribute to the strategic direction of the firms where they work. At least a passing familiarity with the following works will greatly expand your ability to see things from the perspective of the CEO and to begin to think strategically.

So, with no further ado, here are 10 essential reads for CIOs, CTOs, Directors of IT and other IT leaders:

  1. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors - Michael Porter's seminal title, this book basically created the modern field of strategic analysis. Porter's Five Forces model, laid out in this book, is one of the most well known and frequently encountered techniques for analyzing a firm's position within its industry and for thinking about strategic initiatives. If you can only read one book on business strategy, go to the source and read this one. Yes, it's somewhat academic and can be a bit dry and terse at times, but it's worth the effort. Your CEO, or the consultants your CEO hires, will be talking in terms of the vocabulary defined in this book.
  2. Capability Cases: A Solution Envisioning Approach - this is an excellent follow-up to the first Michael Porter book, as it builds on Porterian strategic analysis and presents a methodology for using that analysis to generate new strategic initiatives, which will be supported by technological capabilities, and then building a case for those capabilities, in terms of the impact on the business. Adopting an approach like this is how a CIO can move from being seen as filling a strictly tactical or operational role, into being seen as an influential strategist in his/her own right. Note that we have written extensively on the Capability Cases approach here, and you may find that useful reading as well. See: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three in our series on Capability Cases.
  3. Adaptive Enterprise: Creating and Leading Sense-And-Respond Organizations - If you want to understand and talk about possible sweeping changes to the very DNA of your organization... new business structures that are better equipped for competing in the 21st century - like "Sense and Respond" management - then this book is for you. The authors present a theory of a fundamentally different way of structuring organizations, which result in a much more responsive and agile organization which is much better suited to compete and survive in an era of hyper-competition.
  4. Business @ The Speed of Thought - Bill Gates wrote this back in the late 1990's and it's as relevant today as it was then. In this book, Gates presents a vision for what he called the "Digital Nervous System". As an analogy to the human autonomic nervous system, the "Digital Nervous System" represents the way in which a firm's IT system enable the flow of signals and information within the "body" of the firm, allowing coordinated decision making and agile manoeuvring. And despite the decade plus which has passed since this title appeared, most firms still do not truly use their IT systems in this way, to the present day. For more information on achieving this goal, see our article: Digital Nervous System.
  5. Peripheral Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals That Will Make or Break Your Company - the title really says it all. In a hypercompetitive era like the one we operate in now, it is more important than ever to be able to detect changes in your environment and react to them appropriately. Consuming massive amounts of data, applying automated analytics and extracting meaningful insights, are tasks where IT is absolutely essential. In this regard, IT can serve to provide a sort of "radar sensing" capability to the organization, which allows it to "see through the fog" and avoid danger. This title is a deep dive into the importance of, and techniques for, discovering these "weak signals" and surfacing them for your enterprise.
  6. Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy - if you don't have time to read all of Michael Porter's works first-hand, this is a great "Cliffs Notes" review of his thinking and techniques. Written by one of Michael's students and collaborators, this book provides a solid overview of Porterian strategic analysis, without being quite as dry and terse as the original source material. Reading this is still not truly a substitute for reading Porter himself, but it's a good start, and is definitely better than not studying the subject at all.
  7. Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance - another seminal work by Michael Porter, this builds on and expands the ideas present in his first title. As before, this is essential reading for anyone who seeks to be a knowledgeable business strategist.
  8. On Competition - The third and final Michael Porter book in this list, it finishes fleshing out the overall field of Porterian strategic analysis. As with his other works, it is somewhat academic and isn't exactly leisure reading, but the payoff is more than worth the effort.
  9. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy - a lot of people bandy the word "strategy" around, and a lot has been written on the topic. This work by Richard Rumelt dives into what "strategy" actually is, and helps explain what is and isn't actually strategy, and helps you to distinguish between good strategy and bad strategy. This is a great complement to all the Michael Porter stuff previously listed.
  10. Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers - written by Alexander Osterwalder, this book is often recommended to founders of startups, but it has application inside any business... especially one which feels besieged and under fire from all directions, and which is desperately trying to find new ways to compete in an increasingly competitive environment. Competition isn't solely based on your products! You can also compete by altering your business model, and that is the essential discussion in this book: What is a "business model" and how to you create a new one? And how do you know if the new one is good? Read this book and you'll have some very powerful arrows in your quiver, in terms of presenting new strategic models for your enterprise.

There are, of course, more than ten titles that I might recommend to a CIO, CTO or Director of IT (or to anyone in business for that matter). And while this list gets at some real essentials, it is by no means comprehensive. Please share your own suggestions, comments and observations in the comments on this post. For even more great suggestions from the Fogbeam Team, see Part Two of our list.

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