Strategic manoeuvres from smart Canadian CIOs

ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS: Tom Atkins (moderator), President, The Tramore Group; Brian Gill, CIO, The Canadian Depository for Securities; Kumud Kalia, CIO, Direct Energy; Jeff Kent, CTO, Cineplex Entertainment; Jeff Williams, VP, IS, Staples Business Depot; Andrew Wood, CIO, Aon Reed Stenhouse

ATKINS: The role of CIO has evolved from the data processing manager into a true partner in the strategic planning process at the executive level. What is the current perception of the CIO by the rest of the executive team?

WOOD: I believe the executive team now views the CIO as having far more of a leadership change-agent type of role; one that is able to influence and drive new opportunities within the organization. We are actually engaged far earlier in the process than we once were. That is a tremendous advantage because not only can we help the business in achieving their goals and objectives, but we can also provide additional ideas and opportunities.

KALIA: The ‘I’ in CIO can change what it stands for depending on what time of day it is. You could be an Irritant; you could be an Innovator; or you could be the Information guy. You could be all sorts of different things. Over the last twenty years or so – certainly the last ten – business executives in general have realized how dependent their businesses are on IT and how fragile their businesses are because of that dependence. So I think they value having a technology executive around the table, if only to protect them from making some quite large mistakes.

KENT: I think they look upon the CIO as a very positive influence on the business and the strategy. They recognize how much reliance there is on technology, not only to run the current business but also as a component of every new initiative that comes along. I don’t think we’ve had a business initiative in the last eighteen months at Cineplex that technology has not been a part of, and because IT is so important in helping make these initiatives happen, we’re looked upon very positively. It’s also very important for a CIO to understand the nitty-gritty of the business side of the organization.

ATKINS: How would you characterize your contribution to strategic planning in your enterprise?

WILLIAMS: My contribution to strategic planning at Staples is an out-of-the-box thinking kind of perspective. I am another voice at the table with all the other voices and everybody has an opportunity to contribute. But I think the unique value that I bring, outside of the pure technical knowledge and understanding, is just a bit of a different perspective on what might be possible.

GILL: As CIOs, we have a unique opportunity to wear different hats in the exercise of developing strategy and an action plan based on that strategy. Actually, it’s stronger than an opportunity; it’s a responsibility to wear those different hats and be a creative tension in the process. Because we’re sometimes not as involved in the day-to-day business operations in different parts of the company, we can often see different possibilities that might exist. We can also be a conduit whereby best practices and broader perspectives are brought into the organization, because we tend to network well with our peers in different organizations, and with our primary technology vendors and partners.

WOOD: From a business perspective, I’m one of a number of voices that are heard; but the role that I personally try to fulfil is one of an innovator and a challenger. I aim to challenge the thinking and the status quo finding new opportunities to support strategic objectives and achieve business goals, including business growth or cost reduction, that the broader audience in the industry has potentially not considered. I see it as a prime responsibility of mine to bring forth new ideas and drive change within the organization while ensuring that the IT strategy and architecture is tightly integrated and capable of supporting both the tactical and strategic business objectives. My personal perception is from both a business and a technology perspective; my role is as an innovator and primary contributor.

ATKINS: How do you keep yourself current on the use of IM/IT inside and outside your industry?

KALIA: I scan quite widely for different inputs, so I’m always in receive mode. We sponsor research with MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research (CISR). I’ll go visit them three or four times a year, and all of my team frequently interact with them. There are also various CIO-type organizations that are useful. The CIO Executive Council is a pretty good one for reaching out to peers and finding out who’s having the same kind of problems or issues. I also cruise quite a few blogs written either by my friends or by people whose views on business or technology I respect. There are some vendors I talk to; not many but there are a few strategic vendors we have partnerships with, so I learn from them what they’re thinking of doing next. I also need to see what’s up and coming outside of the mainstream, so I take a lot of opportunities to talk to entrepreneurs who have new ideas. I also try to take part in a lot of conversations through social networking tools outside of the company.

ATKINS: How do you keep current on what the competition is doing in your industry?

WILLIAMS: One of the good things about retail is you get to check out the competition. I try to visit competitive stores or competitive formats, and talk to the customers of our competition to see what their experiences are like and what they value or don’t value. I can then compare this against what I hear from our own customers. As well as shopping the competition, I also make use of their services that we’re competing against. I had a computer problem, for example, and rather than taking it to a Staples store, where I would get premium service, I took it to a competitor and I got to experience their service first-hand. This gives you a lot of insight into how you can make your own service better or where their service offering may be weak. ATKINS: Experts have noted that the more daring of strategic plans require changes in the very soul of the culture of an enterprise. Have you encountered this scale of change and what were the key elements of managing through this metamorphosis of the enterprise?

KENT: At Cineplex, we ended up buying our largest competitor, Famous Players, which was quite a bit larger than we were at the time. We spent a long time making sure that we understood what the other side was going through, and we were very careful to avoid the “We did it this way, they did it that way” type of scenario. We also took an approach that recognized that we didn’t do everything the best way – that there were a lot of positives coming from the other organization. We researched all of their processes, their technology, and their people, and our focus was to select the best from both sides. There were casualties on both sides as we went about creating the best team on a go-forward basis. We also decided to make the transition as quickly as we could, because we saw that companies where the transition took a long time to work out tended to be the ones that failed.

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