Tomorrow's CIOs Will Need Business Skills First

By Jeanette James

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CIOs of the future will think of themselves as chief business-information officers if recent trends are any indication of what to expect in 2005 and beyond.

Understanding a company's core business -- and how technology serves that core business -- will be key for CIOs in the coming years, along with strong communications skills, leadership skills and the ability to network with and learn from colleagues.

Business Savvy

"I believe CIOs today are being consulted a lot more by their CEOs than ever before," says Evangelos Simoudis, a partner at the Apax Partners venture capital firm, which runs a bi-annual CIO Advisory Board roundtable. "There are more CIOs in the board room than ever before."

Even in a situation that seems to be all about technology -- such as outsourcing a programming project -- a CIO not only needs the technical savvy to pick the most capable programming partner, but also the business acumen to manage the outsourcing relationship properly.

"CIOs have to have a clear idea of how to integrate service firms into the company," says Gene Leganza, a vice president at Forrester Research in New York.

Sue Powers, the CIO at Atlanta-based travel-reservation system operator Worldspan, echoes their thoughts, explaining that, as a strategic tool, technology is only useful when it serves a company's business needs.

"None of this (technology) matters if it doesn't drive productivity," Powers says. "We don't care about technology for technology's sake."

Beyond internal communications, CIOs of the future will need to master external communications, too. The Internet has fostered an "instant everything" attitude, leaving many CIOs struggling to keep up with growing customer demands. Today, customer service issues have to be instantly recognized and just as quickly addressed in order to keep customers from defecting to competitors.

"And we don't want that to happen," Powers says, adding that Worldspan tries to detect and correct any performance problems or potential points of customer dissatisfaction before the problems become evident to Worldspan's customers -- or its customers' customers.

"The Internet has made us much more focused on 24/7."Leading The Pack

Indeed, whereas questions of customer service may have belonged to a product manager or a marketing department ten-years ago, today's (and tomorrow's) CIOs are not only responsible for fixing many customer service issues, but for taking the initiative to spot the issues and lead the charge to fix them.

"Every business decision drives an IT event," says Ronan McGrath, president and CIO of shared services at Rogers Communications in Toronto. "Product cycles are shortening dramatically" leaving CIOs to solve complex problems more quickly in an increasingly risk-averse environment riddled with conflicting priorities.

Because technology is so pervasive today, CIOs of tomorrow need to know all about conflict-resolution in politically sensitive situations. Few senior managers have to look after problems in departments other than their own. But IT projects or campaigns -- such as the launch of an enterprise resource-planning application -- impact all departments.

This makes the CIO's challenge not only technical, but political as well. "CIOs ... need to learn how to lead," says Leganza.

Meeting The Challenge

In addition to bulking up on the raw mechanics of communications skills, CIOs can improve communications by having a thorough knowledge of their audience -- whether it's a board of directors or the IT staff.

Bulking up on business knowledge can also help. CIOs without an MBA may consider getting one. But often, those with sagacity can get what they need at the office. "You can get an MBA, or you can spend more time with business people," says one CIO.

Networking with other CIOs can also help. "You can get that knowledge by experience and sharing your knowledge with your peers," says Atlas' Simoudis.

For leadership skills, Forrester's Leganza suggests leadership seminars, books written by proven leaders -- and practice. "Like anything else," Leganza says, "Leadership takes hard work."

In the end, though, understanding the company's needs can be a CIO's best guide to what new skills or education are required.

"CIOs need to step outside the confines of the IT organization," concludes Simoudis. "They need to be more plugged into the business aspects of their company. That is the key."

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