Window of Opportunity

The role of the CIO has always been something of a moving target (no pun intended). Ever since the first CIOs appeared on the scene back in the 1980s, the job description has been changing, even if the primary objective of the job – to deliver substantive value to the organization – has remained the same.

If anything, today’s CIOs must be more flexible and adaptable than ever. They must be ready and willing to take on whatever responsibilities the business may require of them. And they shouldn’t be too surprised if those new responsibilities are substantially different from the ones they are used to.

Which brings us to Stephen Segal, CIO of Loewen, a Steinbach, Manitoba-based manufacturer of luxury windows and doors that sell throughout North America and select international markets.

You might say that the 34-year-old Segal belongs to a new breed of CIOs – IT execs who are taking the role of CIO into previously uncharted territory. In Segal’s case, that uncharted territory is entirely outside the traditional bounds of IT. In recent months he was given the added responsibility of helming the company’s advertising and corporate communications (ACC). Heady stuff for a CIO marking his first anniversary on the job this month.

If you think that Segal’s dual role is a never to be repeated oddity, think again – this is the second time he’s simultaneously held the role of CIO and head of ACC. The first was with Winnipeg’s E.H. Price Ltd., a manufacturer of air distribution products.

the proactive CIO

Of course Segal didn’t acquire his new advertising and communications responsibilities by chance. They were roles he was keen on tackling, and had prepared himself for in advance.

At both Loewen and E.H. Price, Segal was already something of a fixture on the sales team. When presentations were made to acquire new dealers, Segal was there in his role as CIO, selling the benefits of the company’s IT processes.

“Our competitive advantage is enhanced by the business processes and systems that make it easier for various levels of customer to do business with us,” said Segal. By having the CIO take part in sales presentations, Loewen is better able to get the message out as to how good the firm’s business systems are.

Soon after Segal joined Loewen, the firm’s Vice-President of Business Development left the company. Segal saw this as an opportunity and fought for the Advertising component of the job. The company had some reservations about giving him the additional responsibility, and perhaps stretching him too thin, but in the end they gave him the chance to prove himself. That chance came with the opportunity to work with the existing Advertising department and manage a project called ‘The Product Guide’.

earning his stripes

When Loewen re-branded in late 2002/early 2003, the company launched its Product Guide, an interim 24-page book that talked about who Loewen is as a company, but was woefully lacking in product information.

“We received a lot of negative feedback from our dealer force, saying this is not a good tool for us,” said Segal. “Yeah, it looks great – it’s on brand – but our customers can’t use it as a way of ordering product. It was an interim piece that had been left in place too long and was costing us market share.”

In October of 2003, the company approached Segal for help on the Product Guide, acknowledging that there were two main challenges with it. Even though the Guide was somewhat ‘on brand’, it wasn’t entirely ‘on brand’, and there was a need for somebody to manage the message. Getting the message right involved asking such questions as: What do we want to communicate about who we are as a company? How do we want to write that information? How do we want to visually and aesthetically present that information?

The second challenge was the absence of product data within the Product Guide. The message had to be communicated that Loewen can literally provide trillions of product configurations, and that the firm’s brochures can make it easy for all of Loewen’s different customers to find out what the company is offering and to order its products.

Realizing that Segal had his hand on all the right levers to tackle these challenges, the company gave him the job of overhauling the Product Guide, adding, “By the way, you have eight weeks to do it.”

In response, Segal and his team took an overall look at what the Product Guide was intended to do, and then tackled various key questions: What type of information must be included in it? How does the Product Guide relate to all the other technology that the company is putting forward? How does it relate to the dealer Web site? How does it relate to the new main Web site? How does it relate to all the other collateral Loewen is creating, all the other systems and departments that have to be supported, and all the various different customer activity cycles?

According to Segal, there wasn’t any specific type of technology that was going to make the project work. Success would have more to do with how the project team integrated and pulled various processes together to deliver information.

“The interesting thing is that we avoided some of the pitfalls and traditional disconnects in advertising and marketing – things like items in the brochure not matching the Web site,” said Segal. “We released the new Product Guide about a month ago, and we’re now also releasing a Web site to go with it that matches the content 100 per cent.”

The task was accomplished by getting the people who were designing and laying out the brochure working with the programmers at the same time. Why? Because it was important to have ‘tie ins’ and links back and forth between the brochure and the Web site.

“It’s one thing for a print person to communicate that we have 30 colours, but what the programmers and Web designers are thinking is ‘how can I create an online environment where a user can pick from a list of colours and get an actual visualization of the differently coloured windows at the same time?'” said Segal. “The programmers are thinking of such things because when they release the Web site, it’ll be a whole new interactive environment, not just a new Product Guide – a whole new way of doing business with Loewen. So the connection with the technology is important.”

The Product Guide was a kind of trial for Segal, to see if he had the right stuff to take over the role of ACC head. And he proved well up to the challenge.

the CIO and the web

Segal believes that the move to online mediums is hastening the evolution of the CIO into a cross-disciplinary functional role, like the one he holds at Loewen.

“The CIO has traditionally been responsible for providing a platform for information delivery,” he said. “Now the CIO has some input and responsibility for what that message actually is.”

According to Segal, when Web technology first came out there were two avenues for development of Web sites, and they both failed.

“Sometimes the Web site went under the realm of the person in charge of advertising and marketing. The site would look great – it would be an online brochure – but it would have no transactional functionality; no access to backend systems,” he noted.

“Alternatively, IT would be responsible for the Web site. The site would have great functionality but would look horrible. From 1996 to 2000, real transactional Web sites for the most part were not on par with other communication media. They didn’t take into account branding issues, messaging issues, aesthetics, and things of that nature.”

Segal observed that in most places he’s worked, there has been a traditional barrier between the advertising and marketing group and the IT group, and this causes major problems with Web initiatives. Either the message isn’t getting out because the IT people are doing too much and not working with the advertising group. Or the message is getting out, but there’s no competitive advantage in the business process.

The Product Guide project is an example of how both groups can work efficiently when under the umbrella of the IT department.

bringing ACC into IT

Naturally there was a concern on the part of Loewen that Segal would be stretched too thin by his added responsibilities. This was especially true with some major IT projects under way, such as the building of a new data centre, and the implementation of a new order-entry platform.

Segal admits that it’s a challenge to properly judge the amount of time he should spend on ACC versus traditional kinds of MIS undertakings. “We’re addressing the challenge first of all with people, and accountability and responsibility throughout each different department,” he explained. “We currently have four different departments in the IT group, which we now call ITeB (Information Technology and eBusiness), each managed by a talented leader with dedicated staff.

The four departments are:

Advertising and Corporate Communications, which handles the traditional ACC functions;

The ERP Department, which supports the company’s enterprise resource planning systems;

The eBusiness Department, which exists right at that juncture between traditional IS functionality, and advertising and marketing functionality. This group contains both programmers and graphic designers, and is responsible for bridging the ACC group and the ERP group;

The Network Services Group, which is responsible for network functionality.

The managers of these groups report to Segal, and they all have specific projects, objectives and deadlines that they’re accountable for.

“The key,” said Segal, “is never to believe that something is being exclusively handled by one of the managers, and collaboration is no longer required. As soon as I say ‘okay, Network Services does not need to work with the other departmental groups; I don’t need to think about cross-functionality any more’, I’ve failed. As soon as I do that we are going to lose the competitive advantage that we’re gaining by having all these groups work together.

“The whole reason for doing this is to get the collaboration. You want to have all four managers in the room at the same time. And you want them to be thinking customers, e-business, ERP, networks, and how they’re all going to work together to grow the business.”

synergy of the four groups

Segal sees a great benefit in having all of the four departments under one roof.

“How often do you have the technical infrastructure manager make a presentation, and then five minutes later the manager from advertising is talking about what the media campaign is going to look like in the next issue of Architectural Digest?” he said. “Think of the connectivity!”

When Loewen has a new advertising campaign in preparation, everybody throughout the IT group now knows what’s going on. The eBusiness people know that they have to re-design the aesthetic of the Web site to match the new consumer campaign, and they know they’re going to incorporate the information from those ads right into the site. At the same time they know they have to communicate this information to the dealer. The Web site people have interactive processes that enable them to send automatic e-mails out to all the company’s different customers, so they’re involved in the whole process. And the people in ACC can immediately inform everyone how Loewen is going to create a uniform presence for each new marketing initiative, brand campaign, and new product being released.

Segal acknowledges that there have been some internal challenges in putting the new model in place, but he believes everyone is now on board.

“The skill of the ITeB leadership team has allowed a high level of trust to be extended to the individual managers who ensure that projects are executed within the framework of the overall vision,” he said. “And the departments outside of our group, like the customer order services and sales groups, have been absolutely wonderful. They see the ability for us to now leverage our infrastructure as a way of growing the business.”

serving key customers

Another Web-based initiative that helped propel Segal into his cross-disciplinary role is DealerNet, a password-protected Web environment that links Loewen’s back-end ERP system and order-desk processes with its dealers.

“We in the IT group understand dealer development, and we are playing that up as a competitive advantage,” Segal noted.

“When we go out and make sales presentations to dealers, one of the things that we do is demonstrate DealerNet, because it provides features that help make them more profitable.”

When Segal first arrived at Loewen, dealers were in the habit of phoning the company to find out the status of their order. With the implementation of DealerNet, the Web has now become the primary communication platform for the dealer.

DealerNet answers such questions as: How do dealers find out the status of their order? How do they execute a change to their order once they’ve submitted it? How do they request a credit? How do they order a trade show display? How do they order literature and collateral information?

“We looked at all those processes and are implementing technology to improve each one of them,” said Segal.

Another key customer segment for Loewen is the architectural community. Loewen windows typically find their way into upscale homes, and that usually means that an architect specifies what products will be used.

“We want the architect to be thinking Loewen at all stages of process,” said Segal.

Here again, Loewen relies on its business processes for competitive advantage.

“When an architect chooses to do business with us, it’s not just because we have a great product or the most configurable product; it’s also because we make the business process as easy as possible for them,” said Segal, a trained architect himself. “For example, we’re providing integrated CAD tools that allow architects to drop their window details directly into their CAD system.”

The company is also aiming at raising its brand awareness with the homeowner, positioning itself as a luxury manufacturer similar to those found in other household segments such as plumbing and lighting.

Said Segal, “We want the homeowner walking in and saying, ‘I want to have Loewen windows. Why? Because they’re high quality, because I can get the type of window I want, and because it’s a stylish and luxury product.'”

the challenge for CIOs

Segal believes that the CIOs of every type of organization need to start getting more involved with customers – meeting them face to face, understanding their requirements, and realigning their company’s infrastructure specifically for customers.

“CIOs have to expand their role into branding and into sales,” said Segal. “It’s not in every CIO’s nature to do this. Many of them are great at managing data centres, or running networks, or implementing best practices – all of which are important. But the question becomes, what initiatives are they driving that generate top-line revenue growth.”

According to Segal, companies have a choice: do they want to have a great infrastructure that maintains the status quo, or do they want to have a great infrastructure and at the same time be pressing on to new territory, trying to leverage their customer technology and create a competitive advantage?

The answer is obvious. But how do you find a CIO that can deliver both the great infrastructure and the competitive advantage? It’s not easy.

Segal, however, is optimistic. “CIOs are now being challenged to undertake a more collaborative job description. They need to understand all the traditional IT functions, but must also expand their area of influence and provide additional corporate value. I believe many of them will rise to the challenge.”

But in companies where the CIO sticks to being “the MIS person”, he adds, advertising and marketing people will likely step in and take a leading role in technology.

about Loewen

Loewen is a Steinbach, Manitoba-based manufacturer of Douglas Fir windows and doors for luxury homes throughout North America and select international markets. With over 1,200 employees and annual revenue in excess of 100 million dollars, the company has experienced tremendous growth since its inception in 1905. Loewen prides itself in its understanding of the marketplace, the look and quality of its products, and the flexibility it offers customers in terms of configuring and customizing its products.

David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is editor of CIO Canada.

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