Surething Insurance: The Disempowered CIO 

John Thompson, CSC Research Services, and Espen Andersen, Norwegian School of Management, prepared this case as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation. The contents are based on an actual situation, but names and events have been disguised.
© Copyright John Thompson and Espen Andersen 1999
This case may be freely used for teaching and other non-commercial purposes as long as this notice is not removed.
Instructors can get a teaching note with discussion of the case and some suggestions for teaching by sending an email to Espen Andersen.

Al is the CIO of Surething Insurance, a large, multinational full-service insurance company. He has had the job for two years. The company is proud of the decentralized autonomy that business units are given -- though this operating line culture often leads to a lack of coordination between operating groups. To compensate for this, Al was hired by the CEO to be the coordinator of the different I/T approaches taken by the business units and to advise the Executive Committee on the strategic aspects of Information Technology. Several operations (e.g. PC maintenance) have been outsourced and the business units conduct most operational activities (e.g., systems development and data center operations). Al has a small group of senior systems people reporting to him and he reports to the CFO who sits on the Executive Committee.

Al is unhappy in his job. In his previous job, at a smaller company, he had line responsibility for the I/T operations. Here, it seems, he is held accountable without having any authority over the business units’ I/T. His advice “on strategic aspects” is rarely sought, and, if offered, never followed. His small staff of people is not respected, but Al feels it would be risky to replace them since they know more about the mission-critical systems of the company than he does. He struggles to get budget to do anything and continuously has to defer to the power of the line management. He wonders how Ed, the SVP of Investments, manages to get what he wants when Al, another senior staff person, has so much difficulty. The last 6 months, he has seriously been considering going somewhere else--he feels he is going nowhere at SureThing but wonders whether the job of CIO (which he has always coveted) would be any better anywhere else.

Paul, the CEO, is unhappy with Al. Although Al reports to the CFO, Paul recognizes that I/T is not an area of interest for the CFO and so Paul involves himself in the technology, knowing it can make a competitive difference to SureThing. “Al is not assertive enough”, says Paul, “he seems to lack self-confidence and he spends too much time getting permission to do something instead of just doing it. He should stand up for what he believes in much more.”  Paul wonders why Al cannot be more like Ed – who moves with firm confidence, builds consensus and gets things done by including colleagues, never surprising superiors.

Two recent events have brought Al to despair:

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Last updated: October 16, 1999.
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