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When it comes to your company’s IT infrastructure, who’s job is it anyway?  Who takes the blame (or maybe even the fall) if something goes wrong?  More and more, responsibility for an IT failure is reaching all the way to the executive suite. In May, Target Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel resigned after a major data security breach.  Some said it wasn’t his fault, but the company’s board disagreed saying it was a result of underinvestment in Target’s IT systems.  The Associated Press quoted Daniel Ives, analyst for FBR Capital Markets who said, "…ultimately, it's the CIO and the IT managers that are really more in the weeds, but just like the head coach of a football or basketball team that doesn't make the playoffs, the CEO is ultimately responsible."

And take the case of James Thaw, President and CEO of the Athens Regional Health System in Athens, Georgia.  Thaw’s organization, like almost every hospital in America, had invested millions in implementation of an electronic health record (EHR) system.  Whether there was pressure on the IT department to roll out the new software before it was fully tested is unclear, but according to the Athens Banner-Herald, the result was near chaos.

Physicians sent a formal letter of complaint to the hospital’s administration claiming the implementation process was too aggressive and resulted in “medication errors, orders being lost or overlooked, emergency department patients leaving after long waits, and an inpatient who wasn’t seen by a physician for five days.”

The letter was published less than two weeks after the hospital’s PR department proudly touted the new integrated system as “the most meaningful and largest scale Information Technology system in its 95 year history.”

James Thaw and Chief Information Officer Gretchen Tegethoff have since resigned.  Whether they were responsible for pressing the “go live” button prematurely is unknown.  Most hospital’s contract with a team of external consultants who sit alongside representatives of the institution’s medical and administrative staff to oversee implementation over a one to four year timeframe.  The fate of those consultants and team members is unknown.

So what’s an executive to do?  Most CEOs got to where they are because of their strategic abilities, not necessarily their technical strengths.  What questions should they be asking their staff regarding major IT decisions?

“It comes down to two words; integration and communication.”  Michael Feld is the President of VertitechIT, a nationally renowned expert consultant in IT management, and the acting Chief Technology Officer at Lancaster General Hospital.  “IT is the engine that keeps an organization running but often times, CEOs will treat the department as a necessary evil.  Your IT people need to know where the company is going and how technology will play a role in that growth.  When they don’t, you’ve got problems.”

Feld offers up three areas of advice on how to avoid an IT disaster that could have implications in the C-suite and the entire company.

  1. You wouldn’t think of launching a new sales or product initiative without announcing and getting buy in from the sales and marketing departments.  Integrate your IT department in the same way.  Make sure everyone, from your Chief Information Officer to front line system engineers understand issues that effect the life of the company.  Everyone should understand IT’s role in achieving those goals.
  2. Plan an off-site retreat with your CIO.  He or she is, after all, is no different than the CEO, one level down.  Senior company executives need to know what your network can do, not necessarily how it’s done.  Place the focus on understanding risks, benefits, costs, and the relationships all of them have to each other.
  3. Put your personal biases on the shelf.  That new company initiative may have been born in your office but it’s easy to fool yourself into believing that IT can just “make it happen.”  Keep asking questions and challenge whether your internal systems and people are ready to press go.  Is there a fail-safe, redundant back up plan in place when something goes wrong?  Are your internal people trained and fluent in its operation and are there outside resources lined up for those “special” situations?  If the answer is no, find out why.

No one wants to just throw money at a problem, hoping it will go away.  But you can’t fight a fire without a long enough hose and that new fire truck will be useless if there’s not enough water coming from the hydrant.  In the end, it’s the chief that will take responsibility if things get out of control.  And to paraphrase Smokey the Bear, ultimately, you can prevent forest fires.