Chief Information Officer: Getting Down to Business

The chief information officer (CIO) must wear many hats. Because even though the CIO heads the information technology group within an organization, the scope of responsibilities and expectations for this title have expanded to focus on aligning technology to the needs of the business.

As such, the diverse nature of a CIO’s job brings with it flexibility in duties and schedules.

A precedent has been set for CIOs: A more dynamic, versatile and business-focused leader who can demonstrate how an IT arm is influencing and supporting the rest of the business in regard to sales, costs, profits and revenues. The IT function has become a business of its own.

The CIO role has been revamped to cover an array of duties and tasks often tied to the business side of organizations. The CIO role and IT as a whole, however, are still evolving and have plenty of room to grow. Because of this, many adaptations must be made, and a CIO’s average day is anything but normal.

Ellen Barry, CIO of Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), a municipal corporation that promotes and operates conventions, fairs and expositions in the Chicago area, said her day revolves around serving the customer rather than any set agenda.

“My days rarely follow a plan, other than prescheduled meetings, because we attempt to be very responsive to our customers and the shows and events that utilize our facilities,” Barry said. “A typical day for me includes interaction with my operational units [operations and security, business systems and technical services] as needed, planning meetings with business unit leads, interaction with our technical service delivery teams (we have implemented revenue-generating technical services for our show organizers, exhibitors and attendees), meetings on potential new technical service offerings, meetings with our customers on potential sales opportunities and meetings with vendors.”

Jeff Tietz, CIO of Fellowes Inc., a global manufacturer and marketer of business machines, records storage solutions and technology accessories, said his day starts the night before with a work-plan review for his group to address the most critical issues to the business. As far as the average day goes, there’s no telling what will fill the plate.

“Is there such a thing as a typical day?” he said. “Morning begins with a review of communications, including e-mail and voicemail, followed by a check on the health and status of the systems. After that, we go into a regular day of understanding and addressing the needs of the business.”

Being flexible is a core skill — it gives the IT group the ability to respond to and assist the business and its customers as issues arise. In this way, the IT facet is helping to drive business.

Maintaining service levels is a top priority, and positive results depend on rapport between the IT department and the customer. Additionally, the business’ success and the IT department’s responsiveness go hand in hand.

“The IT department is an integral part of the business,” Tietz said. “Part of my function is ensuring that we are delivering the value the business needs. One gauge of this is customer satisfaction, which is measured by our service level to our customers. So, we work with the business beyond the internal aspects. We also work with vendors and customers to understand how we can make it easier to do business with Fellowes.”

An important part of achieving customer satisfaction is having a strong command of technology, as well as mastering soft skills that aid in personal interaction.

The added emphasis on business means IT departments are being relied on more and more for attaining and honing business acumen.

Both Barry and Tietz said people who become CIOs have gained extensive technical experience. To be successful on a personal level with the customer, however, you have to be able to express things in understandable terms.

“A CIO must have strong interpersonal skills, the ability to develop and lead a strong team, good organizational and communication skills, an understanding of oneself, an emphasis on deliverables and the ability to be flexible,” Barry said. “These are critical skills for a CIO.”

In addition, CIOs must able to define those technical and communicational aspects in terms of positive results for the business — now more than ever, CIOs are expected to validate their worth and their IT team’s worth in quantifiable terms for other departments in their businesses.

Because of this, IT professionals must understand and translate the correlation between the technical and business sides of the organization.

One of the ways Tietz ensures his group is delivering results is by opening the lines of communication within the IT department.

“First, we work very hard to understand the business,” Tietz said. “We provide a platform (an open exchange platform within the group) so there are no silos of technology. This way, we can do cross-training and cross-functional work within the department. It keeps it interesting.”

Barry emphasizes CIOs’ ability to see the big picture in their business to effectively provide for it.

“Analytical skills are critical for success as a CIO,” she said. “An ability to understand the business, its needs, challenges and opportunities is extremely important. An ability and desire to understand technology and how it can help the business is also crucial.
“Although the CIO does not need to be a certified technical professional, an effective CIO needs to be able to understand the impact of specific technology on the business and operations.”

It is not surprising, then, that because of the many skills required of the position, CIOs come from diverse technical backgrounds. CIOs were once expected to have a technical background, but as the IT role continues to develop, companies increasingly are finding their IT team members from more business-oriented backgrounds.
Tietz started on the technical path.

“I began my career as a mechanical engineer,” he said. “I changed careers and moved to a company that was looking for a mechanical engineer that understood electronic interfaces. I took a liking to technology and have been immersed in it ever since. In fact, I’ve been with Fellowes for 15 years and have held the CIO position for nine of them.”

Tietz said he has encountered a fairly high level of diversity in networking among CIOs.

“As I have met and worked with different CIOs, I have found that they have taken all sorts of paths,” he said. “Most have some kind of technical background, and there is certainly always a business component. Experience is a necessity because it means you’ve been down in the trenches, doing the work, understanding it and applying it over the years. As you move up in the organization, your ability to code means less, and strong business skills take precedence.”

Both he and Barry said good communication is also a prerequisite.

“I’ve held numerous positions in the private sector in positions ranging from business analyst to project manager and internal consulting,” Barry said. “About 10 years ago, I accepted a position with the city of Chicago’s Department of Business and Information Services to work on reinventing city government from a technology perspective. I spent time with the Chicago Police Department in an effort to roll out a criminal history record information system and then accepted a position of first deputy CIO, where I was responsible for all computer operations. As first deputy, I helped outsource both desktop services, as well as mainframe computer operations. Because of my work at the city, I was recommended for this position of CIO here at MPEA.”

On the path to becoming a CIO, it is recommended to get involved with different industry organizations.

Tietz is a member of the Illinois CIO Exchange, a for-profit technology industry association for IT leaders to discuss and implement Illinois-based technologies. Barry works with i.c.stars, a nonprofit that provides IT career programs and services to inner-city young adults. She is also a member of the Chicago Chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM).

Beyond technical background and social involvement, many CIOs chart different educational waters, as well. In the past, degrees in software engineering, computer science, information systems or a similar field were mandatory, but many CIOs today have been recruited from more business-focused disciplines.

In fact, a CIO is likely to be pulled from the business side of the organization.

“In my case, my background is business analysis and project management,” said Barry, adding that she feels her successes are in large part due to her background in math and her master’s degree in business administration.

“Math helps with a deep understanding of logic and processes,” she said. “The MBA allows me to understand the dimensions of the business, the opportunities that would be effective for the business, and allows me to understand the impact of IT decisions and opportunities. As CIOs, we must also have a passion for people — both our staff, as well as our customers, internal and external. Understanding and appreciating the efforts necessary to deliver results is critically important in developing a strong and effective IT organization.”

Tietz added that certifications can be an important factor for people considering the CIO position.

“Certifications are a great indicator that someone has done their homework,” Tietz said. “They are valuable. For technical folks, certification is key. However, I focus on results — I look at the results more than anything.”

Both he and Barry suggested that future CIOs likely will (and should) take on additional leadership roles. The position has reached a point where it is focused on partnering with business, but in the future, IT will be leading and driving businesses through process improvement, productivity optimization and getting rid of inefficiencies.

Ultimately, CIOs are change agents who are making businesses succeed.

The domain of business intelligence is becoming increasingly chaotic, as information continues to flow out of a variety of sources and into every area of organizations.

The demand for this information to be searched, analyzed and put to intelligent use is going to skyrocket in the next several years. For this reason, many organizations and IT departments are looking for people with specific qualities tailored to suit this necessity.

“Business intelligence [BI] is the coming technology, and someone with a good background in business intelligence who understands business needs and how to apply these skills in the real world would make a valuable asset,” Tietz said. “In fact, I’m hiring BI people now.”

Technology permeates everything a business does. As technology continues to advance, and execution becomes more complex, organizations strive for leaders who are capable of addressing enterprisewide issues.

As far as moving up the IT ladder, a well-rounded background with a variety of experiences, in addition to leadership skills and effectively delivering quality projects, go hand in hand with success.

This level of growth and demand is seeding the development of more CIOs.

“A CIO is generally the product of many IT experiences,” Barry said. “These experiences are progressive, allowing the individual to grow into the title with increasing levels of responsibilities. Successful project completion and implementations, followed by effective management of staff and deliverables, ultimately becoming an effective leader who can organize and inspire a high-powered staff of IT professionals is generally the path to the CIO office.”

Ashley Poynter is a journalist and an account executive with the Bradley Wiltjer Marketing Group. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com

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