CIO Update Q&A with Business Objects

By Allen Bernard

(Back to article)

Sheri Anderson, Business Object's CIO, has been in IT for over twenty-five years yet got her start with Ross Perot's EDS not as an IT person but as a business person brought over into the IT fold.

Prior to joining Business Objects, Anderson was CIO for Xilinx, the worldwide leader of programmable logic solutions, and before that, held several senior-level positions at Novell including a five-year stint as CIO.

Her career has allowed her to see the many changes IT has undergone over the past quarter century and convinced her that, for IT to move forward, it must take on a new mindset that revolves around business-thinkers, not technologists.

CIO Update: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing IT today?

Anderson: I think one of the really big challenges today is hiring the right talent in terms of management to have sufficient business knowledge and understanding, along with the requisite technology knowledge. It's difficult to find people who can drive change and manage business results, and continue to cope, as we always have in IT, with the fast-changing technology. So I believe our biggest challenge is a talent challenge.

If could do something I would try to attract more people into IT who business people as opposed to computer mavens.

Who you then have to train to understand technology, right?

Yes, of course, you do. I may be biased because that's how I started my career many, many, many, years ago when Ross Perot had come to the conclusion a long time prior to that in the early 70s, that it was easier to take a good business person and train them in the technology than the other way around.

One of the things I found here at Business Objects is our most successful and our happiest business analyst are the ones we brought over from the business side and trained.

So you don't want to train them as programmers or developers? That's not what you're talking about.

No, business analysts and project managers and really change managers. So, for us, as our company, is growing so fast … coping and staying relevant is around being able to adapt quickly as the business changes.

So we need people who can be in front of change rather than be behind change and who can help the business drive the right business process changes.

In a software company there is sometimes not as much process awareness as say a big manufacturing company, so learning how to drive whole new ways of doing the business, which is just a super-set of business processes, that's a different kind of skills set than some of the traditional IT folks have had.

It's … How do we find people who are systems thinkers, who can look at whole flows, who can understand how markets are evolving and anticipate change and align people around and drive changes? It's much more the business analysis, project management, change management kind of skills I am (trying) hard to attract.

So what is driving this need for more business-orientated thinkers who can also understand the complexities of IT?

We're seeing companies start to invest in IT again. A lot of the fundamentals in IT got done or got changed during the bad period, kind of post-Y2K up to 2004-2005 … that now we're moving into more of a harvesting cycle and value cycle verses a cost-saving cycle.

And if we look at a value cycle—How can IT contribute business value as opposed to how can IT just cost less?—then in that value cycle we need new skills and more people to do it.

It's a different skill than: Can I run my data center more efficiently or can I outsource my development to India? It's: How can I drive more business value from systems investment?

Is this a direct result of the current efforts to break up silos and move to more flexible computing?

In a sense we're moving beyond the ERP era, which is kind of a transaction processing era, (ERP) is necessary but now we need to move up the value chain; that how we look (at IT) in more integrated end to end fashion, how we see larger patterns.

On the infrastructure side, we don't have to have the same kind of static one-to-one mapping of a server to a system or dedicated storage to a server. We have a lot more flexibility on the infrastructure side, powerful middleware, powerful systems-orientated architecture, which is really starting, I believe, to mature.

That really lets us look at delivering value. And that quest for new flexibility, new responsiveness, new speed, is driving a next wave of investment in IT, which is driving competition for IT resources.

This next wave then is all about getting people who know how to derive value from existing investments?

It's globalization, it's the real-time nature of contemporary life and it’s the robust, flexible infrastructure including the Internet infrastructure that we now have that drive us to re-examine our systems and our information and say: What new insights, what new advantages, what new opportunities can we find for our business?

Now, how can we derive additional competitive advantage because the world is changing faster, we have competitors that are global so we're not protected by geography from competition, so we have to compete harder in every business so what can we extract for additional value out the systems we have?

So that's where the need for more business-orientated IT folks comes in?

Right, (people) that can think like that; that can think about new business models, new customer insights, new competitive advantage. The old model where we in IT would wait for the business to tell us what they need … it's too slow, it's too siloed.

We need to have a much more cooperative and adaptive kind of response to the change in competition and we need people who can think and lead and work across cross-functional structures and matrix organizations more successfully.

Some of the boundaries are coming down. I've heard interesting discussions about the boundaries between marketing and IT because of these exact things where most of what I am doing in marketing is extracting insights from data in our systems—Am I an IT person or a marketing person?

So, is your ideal candidate for this role an MBA who can learn technology?

You learn some things in business school but you don't necessary learn everything so there some value in the training and experience you get going through an MBA program. But there's a lot of value in real life and, so, what is the balance?

I would prefer to hire from the business who may or may not be MBAs than to hire MBAs out of biz school.

You need people who understand business processes who understand how business think about value and who understand, for instance, the time value of trade offs that we make about what we do.

You need a certain amount of entrepreneurness; people who understand taking reasonable risks, who are willing to explore, make appropriate exploration about What if: What if we tried this?, which is a very different mindset from the ERP mindset, definitely not an explore-mindset.