Where We Were and Where We're Headed

By Allen Bernard

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Over the past 10 years IT has come a long way. It used to be (and sometimes still is) companies only turned to the people running IT for input into new ideas or processes at the very end of the decision-making cycle -- after most of the important decisions had been made.

For MIS managers and today's equivalent, the CIO, that meant having a skills-set rooted firmly in technology, not business. Today, that equation has changed, and is changing, dramatically. Advancements in technology and its pervasive use throughout most large organizations means 21st Century CIOs have to have skills-sets that go far beyond their predecessors.

Today's CIO is increasingly a major player in the decision-making process, right alongside the CFO, CEO, president and division and business-unit heads. To be effective in this new role, a CIO today not only must understand technology, its application and limitations, but also must have a firm grasp of all the business processes it touches in the company. This means he or she must be as well-versed in business, its politics and nuances, as technology.

First-Hand Experience

When Doug Lewis, a senior consultant at Edge Consulting, took his first CIO job at Pratt & Whitney more than two decades ago, for example, he worked with the heads of engineering and manufacturing to cut jet engine development time from seven years to four.

By the time he left the business world to become a consultant, he was part of the executive management team at Holiday Inn (now InterContinential Hotels Group) that decided such weighty issues as whether to buy other hotel chains, the company's overall direction, how to boost efficiency and increase sales.

"And that's very far from deciding how to implement an ERP (system)," he said. "It's a very different world. And it's one where you have to understand how the business works, what drives revenues, customer relations as well as how to apply technology to make money. And (as importantly) when not to apply technology, I think, is a skills-set most CIOs need now."This last observation goes right to the heart of the matter. In the past, when most programmers and developers worked in-house and not in India, IT was limited in its ability to affect the business and its processes. Today, off-the-shelf solutions abound and it is up to the CIO to know when a system upgrade will benefit the business, hurt it or just be a waste of money fixing something that doesn't need to be fixed. These are business decisions, not technology decisions.

"Overall, I think the CIO role has become more a strategic, business-orientated role rather than being just a tactical role," agreed Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology and 15-year veteran of the IT placement business. "I remember when there wasn't even a CIO. It was kind of like you had an MIS manager and that person just took care of your computers in your computer room."

While still an integral part of the job, most good CIOs hire good help to accomplish this day-to-day task. That's what makes them managers and not line employees as they once where considered.

CIO Every Time

Given the choice between any senior job in any organization, regardless of pay, Bob Molnar, a partner at the placement firm of Highland Partners, said he would take the CIO's job every time. Granted, Molnar -- a former CIO at global media giant Viacom -- already is partial to the position, but his reasons are rooted not so much in his past as in his experiences.

"I think he's got the job that's the most fun," said Molnar. "It is a tough job. It is a challenging job. The CIO can impact the company much more the CFO (for example). The CFO can squeeze the purse strings, but he can't make productivity happen, he can't make efficiencies happen. He can't improve customer service and handling like a CIO can. He can't help create something in terms of delivering the technical capabilities for a new product or new offering like the CIO can."

And therein, perhaps, lies the pay off. While the job has changed and, by most observations, become more difficult, it is also much more challenging and dynamic. The pocket protectors are long gone and along with them the stigma that IT is just another department servicing the company's more important business functions.

For today's CIO being successful is more about learning and understanding than bits and bytes. A job that calls for the best to be their best and, definitely, not one for the faint of heart.