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What makes for good IT leadership? It's a bit like asking what's the meaning of life. The simple answers never satisfy, and the complex ones are, well, often too complex and personal to apply generally. But there are elements of collaboration, open thinking, technical understanding, and lots of personal energy and drive that seem to be a part of a successful CIO's makeup. It's more than just good ideas; it's the ability to sell them to C-level colleagues, along with having their trust that you'll deliver.
This point was re-emphasized to me as I listened to three CIOs talk at last week's InformationWeek 500 conference about how they'd applied their craft to improve products and drive new revenue for their companies. One of them, the IT chief for a large cruise ship company, discussed extensive IT innovations that made the experience on his company's largest ship, which holds some 6,000 passengers, a good one. Another runs IT for clothing retailer whose primary customers are teenage girls. The third's company is a B-to-B distributor of goods ranging from office to janitorial supplies.
One presentation was about cool ways to make a monstrous ship more serviceable, the next was about marketing to teen girls where they live (on Facebook), and the third looked at providing all the online services needed by small businesses to compete against the likes of OfficeMax and Staples. I tried to find some commonality in these three IT leaders' successes. It wasn't as simple as listening to customers. I doubt a 50-year-old CIO could really listen to a 15-year-old girl and discern what he should do for the business. Nor would the SMBs being eaten alive by the OfficeMaxes of the world have known that they needed their distributor to provide a full-on SaaS-based Web offering so their services would compete with the big guys.
Nor was it as simple as listening to internal business partners. No one outside of IT would have thought to rent iPhones to cruise ship passengers and put Wi-Fi tethers on their kids so that parents could manage the on-ship experience and keep track of their families all with one user-friendly device. No one else at the office supply distributor would have thought to put themselves into the Web hosting business. That idea also had to come from IT.
These are the sorts of innovations that change a company's fortunes. None of them can be done by the tech group alone, and none of them could be done without it.
What these IT leaders have done is embraced new technologies and augmented their own IT capabilities to create new revenue streams. In every case, they started their discussions by talking about just how difficult these projects were, and yet the products and services they created all emphasize simplicity and a keen understanding of what their constituent audience needs--even if that audience didn't know that that particular innovation was what they wanted and needed.
One point of all three executives made was the need to get past thinking about internal systems. If you're spending all your time worried about the HR system, or server uptime, or network performance, or database contracts, you aren't doing what you could be for the business. Of course, you have to have those important internal systems in place, but that's when the fun starts. That's when it's time to change the business.
Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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