CIOs are exhorted to lead their people to that promised land where IT departments are perfectly aligned with business goals.
But there is little guidance on how to achieve this laudable goal.
The CIO 100 Assembly held this week in Niagara Falls, Ont. was meant to meet this need.
It was a forum for CIOs and other senior IT managers to share ideas, strategies, case studies, and best practices for harnessing their company’s IT resources and placing them at the service of the business. Developed by CIO Canada magazine in conjunction with its associated professional association, the CIO Executive Council, this inaugural three-day retreat was focused on building a body of actionable knowledge around the most compelling issues facing CIOs.
Obtaining a single version of the truth – standardizing, consolidating and centralizing information – is top-of-mind for many organizations.
To tackle this, think global and act global, said Charles Kirk, senior vice-president and CIO at Celestica Inc., a Toronto-based electronics manufacturer. The company recently completed a major restructuring project to re-engineer financial processes and re-install SAP ERP systems at 32 international sites around one global data model.
Forcing a single version was the least pleasant part of the project. “I was treated like the anti-Christ,” said Kirk. But his main weapon against political resistance was buy-in from the CFO, who was “both the patient and the doctor.”
As the finance department would ultimately bear the brunt of lay-offs once financial functions were de-duplicated, the CFO played the bad cop role to the IT department’s good cop. “There were too many people doing too many different things in finance,” said Kirk. “The paradox is if you reduce the number of people involved, you get better results.”
Since change is the only constant nowadays, CIOs should consciously work with the normal churn rate in their industries to improve productivity, he said. Celestica is endlessly shutting down, opening and consolidating plants, and there were plans in the mill to revamp 26 of the 32 sites involved in the project in any case.
The introduction of a formal IT project management office (PMO) was instrumental in the project’s success, said Kirk – and this was a recurring theme in other sessions. “We needed real project management with real teeth,” he said.
Having an area devoted to escalating issues that may hang up a major IT project helps keep it on track. This approach was so successful that Celestica plans to introduce a corporate PMO next year to handle start-ups of new plants, one of many examples of cross-pollination from IT to business areas that came out of the conference.
At GlaxoSmithKline, a Toronto-based pharmaceutical, there are similar plans underway to expand the PMO across the company, said vice-president and CIO Savino DiPasquale.
He said new IT initiatives are filtered through the PMO to inform senior management and get their feedback about tying IT to strategic business needs – a key factor in helping a CIO gain credibility with the CEO.
Communicating with the CEO in particular and business people in general in their own language is essential, said DiPasquale. Imagine if a COO communicated in the same way as some CIOs do, reciting a litany of facts and statistics about the number of manufacturing plants and production targets met, instead of translating this data into meaningful information about the profitability of the business, he said.
IT organizations should invest time and money in communications, and consider dedicating staff to this area, said DiPasquale. If IT staff don’t have the time or skills for this, a novel solution introduced at GlaxoSmithKline was to simply engage an external communications agency, effectively outsourcing IT communications to experts.
This approach was a success with employees in a recent rollout of a spate of new end-user technology, said DiPasquale. There were ten initiatives in the rollout which included updating tablet PCs, introducing instant messaging and collaboration systems, and so on.
This would all have sounded like a lot of white noise to employees if GlaxoSmithKline had stuck to the traditional approach of providing static facts about the technology and timelines. Instead, DiPasquale worked with the agency to communicate the purpose and impact of the initiatives, which in turn packaged the information into a “working smarter” theme and program. “This really resonated with staff,” he said.
Communications issues figured prominently in a working session devoted to interactive discussion of IT management best practices, led by Dr. Catherine Boivie, senior vice-president of IT at Pacific Blue Cross, a Vancouver-based provider of healthcare benefits. The biggest challenge facing CIOs is bridging the gap between business and technology, she said.
Many business people don’t understand technology, and educating them is a primary role for IT departments. “It’s not acceptable for business people to say they don’t understand financial concepts. And it should be equally unacceptable for IT concepts,” she said.
Many CIOs spend the bulk of their time on cost management and looking backwards at historical metrics such as systems uptime and downtime, said Boivie. “Systems go up and down like toilet seats,” she said. “But that isn’t technology leadership. A leader looks ahead to the future.” CIOs should be focusing on acting as evangelists for technology and demonstrating how IT can help drive business direction, she said.
An extension of this type of education is the idea of cross-pollinating skills, said Ted Maulucci, CIO at Tridel Inc., a Toronto-based condo developer. IT departments can push out skill sets such as project management that can benefit business units, while IT departments should consider bringing in staff with business analysis skills into the fold. “If we do our jobs right in education and cross-pollination, business units will come to us for direction,” he said, pointing to recent example where Tridel’s law firm called IT to find out if it could make money on a new venture.
Technology innovation is front and centre at Lavalife, a Toronto-based online dating services company, said CIO Loren Hicks.
The business is driven by new technology that can link customers together such as VoIP, wireless, instant messaging and gaming. IT departments can see the signals of promising new technologies well before business units do, and can help steer them in the right direction to maximize their business value, he said.
But Kelvin Cantafio, CIO at Plan International, an international children’s organization headquartered in London, U.K., says he often feels more like the gate-keeper rather than the driver of IT innovation, alluding to the tension between evangelizing technology and controlling it. When business units discover useful technologies such as Skype, it’s difficult to restrain them. Keeping up with technology trends and figuring out the best areas to invest are a major challenge, he said.