IBM's CIO: A Conversation With Mark Hennessy

What's it like being the CIO at one of the most IT-intensive companies in the computer industry? It's a team effort.

John Soat, Contributor

December 19, 2007

3 Min Read

What's it like being the CIO at one of the most IT-intensive companies in the computer industry? It's a team effort.Mark Hennessy is IBM's new CIO -- new since July, that is. That's when he was appointed VP and CIO, "with responsibility for leading technology operations and strategic business initiatives to enable innovation and growth for IBM," according to his corporate bio.

Hennessy doesn't have a background in IT. His last job was as general manager of IBM's global distribution sector, where he was responsible for sales and marketing in the retail, consumer goods, and travel and transportation industries. Still, he says his experiences at IBM (he's been with the company 26 years) have given him a "pretty good idea of technology and how to apply technology to solve business problems." Hennessy reports to Linda Sanford, whose title is "senior vice president, enterprise on-demand transformation and information technology."

Hennessy doesn't run IBM's IT shop. That responsibility falls to the executives at IBM Global Services, which provides the IT processing power for the company. But he is responsible for maintaining IT service levels. "Operational excellence: It's an important part of my job," he says. "I need to make sure we're delivering the productivity we've promised, provisioning employees with the tools they need, and addressing security issues."

A significant element of IBM's internal IT strategy is to "link the IT teams with the line of business teams," Hennessy says. Toward that end, there are "business transformation executives" who reside within the business units and are responsible for understanding them -- "what their strategies are, what their competitive pressures are, what requirements they have," he says. The same goes for a group of "process transformation executives" who reside in the process areas. Those transformation executives are then tasked with applying technology solutions and process improvements to the work of those business units.

These people aren't necessarily technologists. "They may not be IT heritage people," Hennessy says. "Very frequently they are line-of-business people. What's really important is the linkage between line-of-business objectives and technology processes and tools." That's exemplified by "the other term" Hennessy says IBM uses to refer to the IT organization: "business transformation and information technology team."

Hennessy very often refers to "the CIO community," or "the office of the CIO," by which he means an extended group of executives and researchers working within IBM on both the delivery of technology services and innovative ways to use technology -- specifically IBM's technology -- to increase the productivity of IBM's 370,000-plus global workforce. For instance, this week IBM demonstrated several Web 2.0 technologies developed by something called "the IBM CIO global virtual lab," that included a companywide wiki called "Bluepedia" -- developed in IBM Germany -- and an internal virtual 3-D world, along the lines of Second Life, called Metaverse, which is still in the prototype stage but already has more than 20,000 IBMers signed on. That demonstration was held for a group of analysts and journalists, which is how I came to talk with Hennessy.

As IT becomes pervasive in business, Hennessy sees the role of the CIO increasing in importance and impact. "CIOs are uniquely positioned to see their organizations end-to-end," he says "I'd been in a lot of different parts of IBM, but for the first time I can see the organization end-to-end." That perspective confers both great opportunity and great responsibility. "CIOs are very well-positioned to do the integration across business divisions, and across geographies," he says.

Another important priority for the modern CIO; meeting with external customers. "My goal is to have a conversation with a client once a day," he says. For one thing, "we need to make sure we understand how our tools and processes are serving our clients. Are they getting what they need?" But it's also important from the standpoint of collaboration with customers and sharing best practices. Says Hennessy, "We face many of the same challenges."

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