Putting together the CIO Association of British Columbia

The Chief Information Officer Association of British Columbia (CIOABC) provides a forum for about half of the province’s senior IT executives to discuss issues of IT management. In an exclusive interview with CIO Canada, co-founder and president Jim Williams talks about how the Association was created and how it serves its members.

CIO CANADA: What were the origins of the CIO Association of B.C.?

WILLIAMS: In 1997 I attended a session by another association – Strategic Leadership Forum – and at that gathering Catherine Boivie, who was then CIO of the British Columbia Automobile Association, talked about the need for senior IT managers to have focus groups to discuss their issues and problems, and to help them understand the technology trends that affect their business. This started the ball rolling and it led to us having two or three special sessions primarily geared toward senior IT managers and CIOs. Because those sessions were successful, it was decided that we should form an association just for senior IT managers and CIOs.

CIO CANADA: How was the Association formed?

WILLIAMS: I was on a bus to Microsoft for an executive briefing with Catherine Boivie and Pam Hollington, and we put together the framework for the Association. The three of us established the general principles and guidelines that we believed were key to such an association. Under Catherine’s leadership, we launched the Association in 1998 with monthly sessions, and by the end of the first year we had our association bylaws and governance in place. And we’ve been going strong ever since.

CIO CANADA: How did you take it from the initial concept to rounding up potential members?

WILLIAMS: We did it in a number of ways. About fifteen to twenty people attended the early meetings before the Association was formed, so we had a good base to start with. We contacted a number of people that we knew, and we gradually built up membership. We also made a list of target companies and contacted them about our upcoming program and about the Association. Word of mouth helped us grow as well. We raised our profile through press releases and strategic alliances with other associations.

CIO CANADA: What was the substance of the early meetings? Why were people interested in attending?

WILLIAMS: The people attending our meetings were interested in presentations of topics related to the management of technology – the why and not the how. What is the impact of a particular technology on the business? For a current example, let’s take wireless PDAs. Yes, there was a discussion on brands and features, but our members also wanted to know about their impact on the business. If you have 500 PDAs in a company, what is the impact of wireless on data security, support and so forth? All of the sessions that first year and going forward were at that level – not the how but the why.

CIO CANADA: What about the personal networking aspect?

WILLIAMS: That’s very important too, if not the greatest benefit. Involvement in the Association expands your contacts and your knowledge of what other organizations are doing with technology, so you’re better prepared to meet your own management challenges. For example, how do you respond to your CEO when he gets off the plane after reading an article about customer relationship management and says “We should have that”? There are two ways. One is to reply, “This is really cool stuff. We’re going to buy a couple more servers and some software, and we may have to add some staff…etc.” Wrong answer. The right answer is, “I know of a couple of companies that are using it. It’s been quite effective both at increasing sales and sharpening internal processes. Let me meet with my management colleagues and find out more about the value it may bring to our organization.”

CIO CANADA: Who makes the presentations at Association meetings? Is it other members, vendors, consulting firms or a mixture of all three?

WILLIAMS: It’s a mixture. We’ve tried very hard to draw on membership to participate because they can provide real-life stories as opposed to theory. We have a lot of respect for our partners in consulting and the vendor community, but part of the objective of the Association is to create a safe haven so that senior managers can talk about budgets, projects, staffing and those sorts of things without being concerned about getting a phone call a few days later from a consultant or a vendor saying, “I’ve got a solution for you”. We do draw upon them from time to time but we have a very strict non-marketing policy and the presenters are well aware of that.

CIO CANADA: How has the format changed or evolved since the original meetings, or are things still going along much the same lines?

WILLIAMS: We’ve pretty much been following the same format. Once a year we come up with a list of fifteen to twenty topics and our members vote on the ones they think are most important and of most interest to them and their organizations. We pick seven or eight of those topics and find speakers for them. Sometimes we draw on members, and sometimes when we’ve heard a great speaker from Gartner or a similar organization we invite them to present.

CIO CANADA: What is your current membership and fee structure?

WILLIAMS: At the end of June 2003 the Association had almost 80 members. Our target is 100 for 2003/2004. We believe the total universe of potential members in the Vancouver area is about 150 to 175, so we now have about half of them. Membership is $300 a year, which covers our marketing and administration costs, including a contribution to our scholarship fund. Perhaps the most successful component of our association model is that we have a part-time paid administrator who looks after all of the administration, from event notices, to membership, to the various other tasks associated with running an organization like ours. For a volunteer association, this is really what makes it work for us. Beyond the membership fee there is also the luncheon fee of $35 per event for members, and $55 for non-members. Non-members are welcomed as long as they abide by our non-marketing policy; if they don’t adhere to it, they’re not invited back.

CIO CANADA: How many events did you put on this year?

WILLIAMS: One every month except for December. If you put on too many events in one month people just do not have the time to attend. We primarily have monthly meetings, but occasionally we have a special session, such as last year’s meeting on Microsoft software licensing policies. We had about a dozen members who wanted to talk just about that specific issue. And for the past couple of years we’ve also had an end of year wrap-up for members only, which is a social evening of light refreshments and networking.

CIO CANADA: What kind of attendance do you get at your monthly meetings? And where and when are they held?

WILLIAMS: I would say this past year attendance ranged from about 45 to 55 people, and probably about 75 percent of those were members. We hold our meetings at one of the downtown Vancouver hotels. We’ve found that lunch seems to work the best for our members, as opposed breakfast or dinner. We’ve experimented with both, and to our surprise we’ve found that people are willing to take two hours out of the middle of their day to come to these affairs. I think this is a measurement of the value that they see in the program and in the networking opportunities provided by the events.

CIO CANADA: On your Association Web site you have a “community knowledge” button. What is that for?

WILLIAMS: That provides access to content for members only, including copies of all presentations, membership lists and contacts, and information or research materials from research firms such as Gartner and Meta.

CIO CANADA: So your members have access to proprietary research?

WILLIAMS: Yes, and because of our relationship with groups like Gartner, our members have been able to participate in various conferences. This has been a welcome benefit. Some of the smaller companies wouldn’t normally be able to afford to be a customer of these research organizations.

CIO CANADA: Do you find that because you have got a critical mass of key IT people in your organization that you can use it to obtain leverage on issues – for example, with vendors?

WILLIAMS: We’ve only done that once, and that was on Microsoft licensing. We would like to become the voice of IT management in Western Canada but we haven’t yet promoted this . One of the issues around this is that if people speak their mind as members of the CIO Association of B.C., there is a concern that their opinions might be taken for those of the company that they work for.

CIO CANADA: What other associations are you aware of that have a CIO focus?

WILLIAMS: The Conference Board of Canada has a CIO Council, and in Alberta there is a CIO group from the oil and gas industry. I’m sure that there may also be similar industry-specific groups in other parts of Canada. In the US, the Society for Information Management is working hard to create a CIO subgroup. But to our knowledge there really aren’t any other broad-based CIO groups like ours around. Testimony to that is China, which in the process of starting up the CIO Association of China. They researched North America and didn’t find any CIO association other than us. We were invited to attend their inaugural conference this year.

CIO CANADA: What is the executive make-up of the Association?

WILLIAMS: We have nine board members, including the president, past-president and directors of finance, marketing, association affairs, membership, program, and scholarship. I’ve been the president for the past two years, and am in my third and final year.

CIO CANADA: Looking back over the life of the Association, can you point to any particular area of success that you would like to highlight?

WILLIAMS: Besides Catherine’s leadership and a very dedicated Board, I would point to our scholarship fund, which is part of our mandate and has been in place since we formed. We wanted to give back to the community, and to recognize those students that are studying the management of technology. This past year we held the first graduate-level case competition in Western Canada, and the first Management of Technology case competition in the Canada . We awarded $4,000; first prize was $2,000, second was $1,200 and third was $800.

CIO CANADA: How can interested parties contact the Association to ask about any of the issues we’ve discussed?

WILLIAMS: The best source of information is the CIOABC Association Web site [ www.cioabc.ca], where one can find a list of past and present programs as well as contact information, or they can contact me directly [ jwilliams@aw.ca].

David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is managing editor of CIO Canada.

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