Friday, June 15, 2012

4 Elite CIOs Share Lessons

Four top CIOs recently explored IT trends at an event for academics, who must figure out how to educate the next generation of IT leaders.

Commentary posted by Chris Murphy on June 14, 2012 in Information Week

If you're hosting a CIO panel discussion, getting execs from three Fortune 200 companies and one $4 billion-a-year nonprofit hospital group is a great start. But a recent panel I moderated also had a focused mission: to share real-world IT trends with academics, to help them figure out how to prepare the next generation of IT leaders.
The panel kicked off the 50th annual meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery's "Special Interest Group on Management Information Systems," and was hosted by the Society for Information Management Wisconsin chapter and ACM SIG-MIS's Computer and People Research conference. Here are four ideas from that discussion that stood out for me. 

It's OK To Talk Tech Now

As CIO of Northwestern Mutual, Tim Schaefer has long met with NM financial advisers. Just a few years ago, many of them would almost apologize to Schaefer while explaining they weren't that into technology. Today, however, they're jumping in with ideas for what the company should do next, suggesting apps, and pulling Schaefer into discussions. One big reason is the iPad. Unlike a laptop, the iPad is a comfortable, unobtrusive device to use with would-be customers amid conversations about investments and financial goals.

Johnson Controls CIO Colin Boyd described his teams' work on digital screens to put in the automotive aisle of retail stores, so people can easily look up which car battery they need. The business need? About half of returns are due to buying the wrong battery.
Doing this kind of work moves tech from the overhead expense category into the revenue-driving realm. Schaefer noted that IT organizations used to spend a lot of time hiding the technology needed to meet business goals, and avoiding talking directly about tech. Now that technology faces the customer, "I'm in all kinds of settings where I would never expect the conversation to turn to technology, and it does," he said. 

The IT Career Path Is Splintering
Since our session focused on educating the next generation of tech leaders, we talked a lot about IT careers. All four of these CIOs came up through the programming ranks. At that time, entry-level jobs at IT organizations weren't radically different from those at tech vendors. Today, "I think you have to categorize different types of IT," Boyd said. 

He articulated three categories. One is end user companies, like the four represented on the panel. Johnson Controls IT pros rarely write code, Boyd noted, they integrate and apply it. Another is IT providers and creators--the Microsofts and Googles of the world, and the IT outsourcers--where people will continue to write code from scratch. A third, growing area encompasses those who provision and run IT, operators of the data center infrastructure for cloud services and Web apps.
Aurora Health Care CIO Philip Loftus worries that it will be hard for IT pros to shift among tech tracks, as he did during his early days at drugmaker AstraZeneca, if application building and infrastructure are at different companies. Well-rounded technologists may become harder to find.
Cloud Requires A Mindset Change

Manpower CIO Denis Edwards said his people are scared to death of cloud computing, worried it will shift more IT operations outside the company. So Edwards first reassures them that companies still need IT knowledge to understand the complexity going on in cloud infrastructure. But he also insists that his team recognize where the cloud makes sense. Manpower does a lot of Web app prototypes, which can make great use of the cloud's variable capacity. "If I'm doing a proof of concept today, you're going to have to really prove to me why we wouldn't do this with Google or Amazon or somebody else," Edwards said.

Schaefer at Northwestern Mutual doesn't think the big transformation comes from cloud infrastructure. Instead, he wants his team talking with business partners about the effect of iCloud and similar services: "If I become accustomed to getting information and capability anywhere, anytime on any device, and everything is synched for me without me having to do an awful lot of work to make that happen, what does that mean about what we have to deliver for people to feel productive?" he said.
IT Isn't On Autopilot

The last question from the audience was what CIOs worry about. All four CIOs agreed on recruiting the right people. But they also agreed with a worry raised by Boyd--that tech has become so critical to daily operations, IT needs to move into a "zero outage, never down" mindset. "You can have infinite budgets, and that's technically today still a huge, monumental challenge," Boyd said. And the pressure to be perfect will only grow as IT keeps moving closer to the customer. 

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