CIOCAN Peer Forum offers advice from CEOs

VANCOUVER – If chief information officers aren’t sure how they can contribute to business goals there’s no better person to ask than the CEO, a panel of senior business executives told the 7th annual CIO Association of Canada Peer Forum on Thursday.

Addressing the conference theme of “The CIO Imperative – Creating C-Level Synergy,” panellists agreed that CIOs need to focus on relationship building, both with their management teams and the rest of the organization.

Eamonn Percy, who until last year was the president and COO of B.C. Hydro subsidiary PowerTech, said CEOs are primarily concentrating on three things. These include establishing a corporate culture based on trust, aligning the organization so that it’s in a position to execute on the strategy and being the “chief customer officer.” CIOs have a role to play in assisting in all these areas, he said.

“Approach the CEO and ask,” he advised. “You might be surprised at the answer. You may, in fact, be working on something else.”

Dr. Catherine Azcel Boivie, CEO of Inventure Solutions, is also the senior vice-president of IT and facilities at Canada`s largest credit union, VanCity, so she said she understood what its like on both sides. One way to help bring change in an organization, she said, is to combat fear, uncertainty and doubt by sharing as much information as possible. She has been trying this approach as VanCity replaces its core banking system. 

“I explained that it`s like replacing the electricity and the water system – it impacts everyone in the organization,“ she said. “There will be more plugs and water coming in from places they`ve never seen before. You try to explain it to them in ways they will understand it.“

Percy said it`s important to change on your own terms, not those of the market or a competitors. However it`s also important to make change while still respecting the needs and concerns of employees. He cited a situation where he brought in a new IT leader who wanted to move the company e-mail off one platform and onto another. After several major challenges, they reverted back to the original system. “I appreciated the effort, but we learned a lot about what change meant in our organization,“ he said.

Bill Bullis, former CEO of BCAA, said CIOs and even CEOs need to understand what business they`re in. This may seem obvious, but even in BCAA`s case there were parts o the company that handled insurance and parts that handled travel, and so on. “We eventually realized that we were in the member relationship business,“ he said. “So I talked to the CIO to see what we need to have in place to be able to do excel at that.“ He said the company soon learned its IT infrastructure, which had decentralized off mainframes, was stuck with legacy software that wasn`t integrated, and dealing with this became a core part of BCAA`s strategy.

CIOs need to think two levels above their current position if they want to be more tied to business outcomes, Percy said, adding that they need to focus on knowledge, not data. Boivie said it also helps to be really good at the IT side of things before you position yourself as a corporate strategist.

“If your systems go up and down like a toilet seat, you`ll never be taken seriously at the executive table,“ she said flatly, adding that the ongoing debate over whether CIOs are business people is becoming a non-issue. “The way I look at it, is a zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes? I`m a business person who happens to know a bit about technology.“


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