From Tactical to Strategic: Understanding Industry is Key - Page 2

Apr 17, 2008

Allen Bernard

As more than one CEO has explained to him: "If you're not an active participant in talking about how you can improve the business; how you can make yourself more competitive as a business through IT; then you probably

have better things to do than just sit in those meetings."


And this is when the enlightenment came: Without a deep understanding of the industry in which you find yourself, regardless of how smart you are or how many certifications you have or how many MBA's you hold, you will never had the right kind of knowledge to become a strategic member of the executive committee.


Company vs. Industry


The business knowledge most CIOs possess today is company specific. They know, perhaps better than anyone else in the business, how the company actually runs. How things get done. And this is extremely important knowledge to possess. But it is tactical knowledge. No strategic knowledge because you can't use much of it to understand how your company relates to the wider industry it is in.


This isn't to say you aren't a good CIO if you do not possess deep industry knowledge. Far from it. But going forward, it is industry knowledge, not just technical know-how that will separate the CIOs who make an impact on the top and bottom lines; who will be viewed as leaders in their own right and who can help move their companies in the directions they want to go—not just facilitate that movement with better technology as most CIOs do today.


"I've seen enough organizations where the CIO role—I don't want this to come across the wrong way—but most people that get into IT, they don’t necessarily tend to be people that are the natural born leaders," said Bond. "The majority of them tend to be people who certainly understand the value in technology—sometimes, almost too much, to the detriment of the business—and I think in cases like that, that's what really leads them to where inevitably, where they end up, which is viewed as a commodity and (the business says) 'Sit back until we tell you what we need.'


"There are companies that will continue to go down that path and view IT as a commodity and they'll get what they ask for. And the business (folks) will get together and talk about where they want to go and what they think they'll need, but I think that's where the problem lies. In a lot of cases, when you get the business coming to IT and requesting something they've already thought out, you don't have someone who is at that intersection (of technology and industry) that can understand the root business need or opportunity and construct that with technology possibilities to really come up with a more ideal way of going about it."


For example, Bond points to Progressive Insurance as a leader in his industry. If his head was down simply dealing with the immature infrastructure he inherited as the incoming CIO two years ago, he wouldn't recognize Progressive for the innovator it has become. Because he understands how Progressive used technology to change the way insurance is sold, he was able to show his management the way down a similar path.


"With most insurance companies, at the end of the day, your customer is still the agent. You still have to develop product the consumer wants but once you've gotten that, you're really trying to sell to the agent."


To that end, Bond went out into the field to understand what Century's agents needed and wanted from the company. He then set about figuring out how to make this happen technologically. The result is a portal that not only acts as a communications channel but allows agents to write business by interfacing directly with Century's back-end systems and allows Century to push out alerts directly to agents' desktops.


The first part of the portal is nothing particularly new, but pushing out renewal alerts to the agents—the company-to- agent side of the communication—that is.


"It's just like any other thing," said Bond. "You have to be able to have those kind of communications with true business people who, in most cases, don't know anything about IT; they probably don't want to talk much about technology, so you have to be able to construct a conversation in a way that you show you understand what their ails are and what their opportunities are and then can communicate the possibilities in way they understand."


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