CIO wannabes told to think outside the box

IT workers who want to be a CIO need to think outside the box — like pushing for staff to spend 10% of their time working on something other than operational tasks, according to advice at a recent CIO conference.

A group at Vertex Pharmaceuticals took that innovation time to enter a Microsoft competition for designing next-generation health care networks and won, says David Kuttler, speaking at the CIO Innovation Summit run by the Massachusetts High Tech Council.

Groups of IT workers would meet once a month to consider what forces were driving Vertex’s business and how IT could help improve the company’s performance, Kuttler says. “What came out was what worked well and what didn’t,” he says.

But the thing that got the program started was the initiative to free up time, he says, and making sure it was a priority respected throughout the company. “Managers got dinged if their employees didn’t get their innovation time,” he says.

Other participants on the conference panel titled “How CIOs move from the server room to the boardroom” pushed for smart hiring and smart decision-making processes.

Jay Leader, CIO of iRobot, says he spent a month wooing a job prospect away from another company where he was satisfied and from which he was reluctant to move. The attraction? A job where he could have an impact by working on projects from the ground up.

He doesn’t have to be a brilliant innovator himself to run an IT department that innovates, Leader says. “I don’t get paid to innovate,” he says. “Hire brilliant people, give them an important project and the means to do it and get out of the way,” he says.

Making the first key hire pays dividends long-term, he says. “Bright people attract bright people,” he says. “A cadre of excellent people will raise the game of others.”

Sam Dunn, the CIO of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., says a key contribution he has made is defining a four-step process for making IT decisions. By involving administrators at the school, good decisions are made faster, he says.

The steps are first, creating ideas, then moving the ideas to decision makers. Step three is deciding what ideas go ahead by piloting and getting feedback. Finally, those projects that pass muster are fully implemented.

“It gives us a way to generate a lot of ideas, kill them fast and cheap [if they don’t work out], calculate ROI and involve business leaders,” he says.

When making decisions, return on investment isn’t necessarily essential or even a consideration, the CIOs say. “A lot of things aren’t based on ROI,” says Leader. “I don’t remember the last ROI argument I made.”

Dunn says regardless of the weight ROI is given, figuring it out is a valuable exercise. “Going through the process of finding ROI helps give you a feeling of if it’s the right decision,” he says.

“ROI is an aspect of it,” says Kuttler, “but it’s not the only aspect of the business plan.”

The CIOs also have advice for vendors: Don’t waste time, and be a partner. Being a partner means helping the CIO sell his ideas within his company, setting up tests and working with the IT team to deploy whatever product is involved, says Dunn.

Vendors should avoid turning sales calls into fishing expeditions to find out what a CIO is up to, hoping to shoehorn their products into the answer, says Leader. “No matter what I say you will have a solution for my problem,” he says. Vendors’ real concern should be, “Are you calling me with the right solution set for a problem I’m having now?”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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