CIO Executive Council: Improving Alignment within the business

When we asked CIOs what the most important skills were for success in the job, communications skills came out as number one. Our CIO Insider survey also shows that successful CIOs are spending the lion’s share of their time interacting with their business peers.

Here are some views on communication and relationship skills from members of the CIO Executive Council.

The Council is an international community with a growing Canadian chapter that enables its members to act locally as well as think and cooperate globally. Through the pages of this monthly feature, ‘Forum’, we will share some of the opinions and insights contributed by Council members through interviews and through their various meetings and program activities.

For more information on the Council visit John Pickett, Executive Director, CIO Executive Council (Canada)

The CIO Executive Council shares insights on building a business-savvy staff.By Carrie Mathews

what if you built it and no one came? Or to put the question into IT terms, what if you built it and no one used it? CIOs confront this situation every day as they try to ensure that the products they provide solve real business problems. The stars are those IT teams that have keen insight into business needs.

At a recent CIO Executive Council meeting, CIOs said that building business skills and knowledge is becoming the most important element of staff development. Here are some ways they are doing that.

1] Bring the business into IT.
Mary Finlay, deputy CIO at Partners HealthCare System, hires clinicians to be part of her IT staff. “Their influence is especially apparent when we’re developing systems for clinicians, where they have the firsthand experience,” Finlay said. Some of the nurses and physicians on her team have an IT or health informatics background, but others have no formal IT expertise. Finlay provides them both job training and in-house project management training.

2] Go on a field trip.
If you can’t bring business expertise into the IT team, send the team to the business. Many companies offer job-shadowing opportunities related to specific business projects, but Lynn Caddell, senior vice president and CIO at Waste Management, thinks that one of the keys to understanding the business is to know the entire process. Waste Management offers an annual tour of the trash process, with stops at a transfer station, a landfill and the terminal where garbage trucks are garaged. She encourages her IT staff to participate so that they can see how the systems they build are used. And the knowledge they gain helps staff in another way: “During the visits, participants should be anticipating future enhancements in the process. This way, they can build future capabilities into the technology design on their end,” said Caddell.

3] Hang out with successful business peers.
Gerry McCartney, assistant dean of technology at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management, encourages his high-potential IT staff to “find the best marketers, the best salespeople, and spend time with them. These relationships will help keep you abreast of what’s happening on the business side and will provide solid internal networking opportunities.” He gives this same advice to business school faculty as well. McCartney finds that his top IT performers take advantage of the school’s knowledge base and schedule private meetings with their business partners to discuss ongoing projects. In doing so, they gain valuable business skills and improve their performance.

4] Promote your relationship with the business.
Partners HealthCare System’s Finlay uses departmental communication to not only inform her team of ongoing business projects but also to highlight the importance of IT to the business. In a recent IT newsletter, clinicians on the business side shared their thoughts about what IT means in their daily work. These testimonials from senior business executives effectively publicize how the business is using IT to improve patient services and business processes. And, according to a February 2005 CIO survey of 98 IT executives, the best way to improve the business perception of IT’s value is for business sponsors and users to communicate that value themselves.

Build relationships with the business

Savino (Sav) DiPasquale, Vice President, Information Technology and CIO at GlaxoSmithKline in Mississauga, On., considers relationship management to be an essential competency for every IT organization. Sav’s team at GSK puts a lot of energy into figuring out who the business people are that make the decision and what makes them tick. “You should be figuring out the pain points of the executives,” he said. “Everyone’s got problems; everybody’s got pain; everybody’s trying to get to somewhere. If you can figure that out and help them, that’s how you build allies and build a stronger relationship and then you win them over piece by piece, one at a time. That’s the challenge today,” he said. Everyone who reports to Sav sits on an executive management team in the business. Their primary function is relationship management. “The key is to build those one-to-one relationships and people will open up. Then you can find out what’s really pressing them and what’s challenging them. That’s where you can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let me help you with that.’”

Focus on business value
DiPasquale is clear about his priorities. “As a CIO you need to focus on maximizing business value – not just delivering some incremental business value but taking advantage of those big opportunities,” he said.

He embraces four core strategies. The first is to align all IT efforts to the most important priorities of the business and manage that value. “That means not just doing the projects against what the business wants but aligning and building relationships with those business leaders; figuring out what they like, what they don’t like so that you can develop a strong relationship and a credible platform from which to build.”

The second core strategy is operational excellence. “You’ve got to be good at what you do. No VP is going to talk to you about innovation if you can’t keep the laptops up and you can’t answer their problems. You’ve got to be good from a cost perspective, from a service-level perspective; you’ve got to be at best-practice level.”

Third is to grow your people. “Do you have the right talent across the organization? You’ve got to have the best people leveraging that technology.”

Finally, there’s the thrust on innovation. “You’ve got to create some skunk works. You’ve got to start to take technologies and embrace them together. But you can’t just start firing them at the business; you have to start building a portfolio. Take a page out of the Marketing folks’ book. For example, we took all the innovations around Voice over IP and Web site portals and laptops and tablets, and we put them under a banner called ‘Working smarter at GSK.’ Under that banner, we offer a value proposition. It’s about innovation, but it’s also about freeing up your time. And who doesn’t want to free up their time and be more productive? That’s our selling banner. That’s our calling card. And then we promote solutions company-wide under this ‘Working smarter at GSK’ banner, and that fuels our innovation agenda.”

Promotive the Understanding of IT

Dr. Catherine Aczel Boivie, Senior Vice President of IT at Pacific Blue Cross in Burnaby, B.C., says promoting IT products and services throughout the organization is one of the CIO’s most important tasks. The CIO must be able to expla

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