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Dear Herb: A CIO's Mantra

Herb answers a couple of letters that support selling around the CIO, recommends a CIO mantra, and reminisces with a writer about the good old days.
Your letters to my print column and this E-mail forum raise some serious issues about managing information technology in today's world. Since today's world is essentially absurd, my serious responses may sometimes sound a little whimsical and my occasional whimsical one, serious. In any case, if you want to participate or comment, write to me at [email protected]. I reserve the right to edit for size and content. Just sign your E-mail the way you want it to appear online.

Bypassing The CIO
Herbert:

After reading your article, "Selling Around The CIO," I want to give you another perspective.

Twenty-five years ago, all attempts to get the CIO to provide automation and database solutions to science and manufacturing fell upon deaf ears. The CIO was interested only in the accounting department and the close circle around the CEO. As a result, in our company's research department, we built midrange systems from parts we bought as "instruments," so as not to run afoul of the ban on normal people buying computers or peripherals. We successfully bought around the CIO in order to automate the laboratories and introduce Statistical Process Control in the manufacturing areas.

In 1990, we pleaded for access to the Internet. At that time, remote technical library access was our goal. The CIO had moved to corporate headquarters, but the minions at the plant, overcome with ignorance concerning networking, were afraid to go beyond serial connections to terminals and printers within the plant walls. We, with the help of one of them (a traitorous tireless worker, who's now director of corporate infrastructure), built the network, made the safe connection, and reached out into the information world. Once again, we bought around the CIO and his plant IT director to gain access to the computer's power.

The CIO is much too insulated from the gears of operations to make decisions about technical solutions. His management team needs to reach out to managers and directors, and let these people know that IT wants to listen and help with cooperation and coordination of effort. That means he may need a mechanical engineer or physicist as a direct report.

Computer technology is not all about leverage and strategic planning. Some of it is tactics and gaining information--at high speed--about R&D technology and quality of products and efficiency of manufacturing. These decision support systems provide valuable middle management information and control data rapidly and accurately.

If the IT team provides an interface to the technical effort, then the IT people can tap into these systems to provide consolidation of information for senior management. The CIO who provides an atmosphere of providing resources at the operations level can make it all mesh together without being a puppeteer.

Foster

Dear Foster:

I read over your letter several times and think it important enough to quote it in its entirety. The fact is, you are completely correct.

In the past (and, I am afraid, even now) far too many CIOs were more interested in control of all computing assets or worried about their standing in the executive suite to pay enough attention to either manufacturing or R&D. In those circumstances, it is hard to fault the people in the plants or the labs who bought around the CIO in an effort to help the company succeed.

People at corporate headquarters need to understand that they do not have a monopoly on wisdom. I, for one, will tell you that my first real understanding of the Internet came from one of our research scientists, who very patiently explained to me the value of being able to link to others around the world. I was glad that I listened to him.

On the other hand, a significant number of people wanted nothing to do with the corporate computing facility. That was simply because they were afraid of losing the ability to do what they wanted, regardless of the cost to the company in dollars or flexibility. I remember when one R&D manager told me he wanted to buy DEC equipment, primarily because it would help keep his facility separate from the corporate computing center, which ran on IBM boxes.

Of course, the solution to this turf problem is for everyone to put the best interests of the company before his or her own parochial point of view. However, it isn't quite that easy. In your example, the CIO probably thought he did the right thing for the corporation. The truth, however, is that he didn't understand the needs of the manufacturing and R&D organizations.

The R&D manager I spoke with had the opinion that working with the corporate people was simply more trouble than it was worth, and he was sure they would interfere with his own operation. However, he probably had no appreciation for (or didn't care about) the needs of the financial or marketing groups.

Neither party was using his brain. The fact is that no one has cornered the market either on knowledge or righteousness.

The good news is that, today, your experience from years ago is not as likely to happen. It is a foolish CIO who neglects to involve as many parties as possible in formulating what the company needs to do to succeed. It is part of the job. That fact, however, does not negate the requirement for everyone (including the CIO) who cares about the technology chosen by the company to repeat frequently the mantra, "I don't know everything, and I need to keep in communication with those who have a stake in the decisions I am making."

I Help Companies By Selling Around The CIO

Herbert:

I found your article on how to help a CIO prevent a salesperson from getting any traction in a company very disappointing, and a great example as why many of the brick and mortar companies have missed the boat on technology.

As an Oracle technology salesperson, I have some biases but I also bring an MBA, 12 years of sales and marketing with Fortune 1000 companies, and a voracious appetite for reading about business and generally being up on what is working and what is vaporware!

Look at the brick and mortar companies and review their dismal performance over the last two years. CEOs not having any access to new ideas from CIOs afraid of their own shadow is a pervasive attitude of many CIOs that have no business background other than managing IT departments.

If any of Jack Welch's 75 CIOs acted in the way you are encouraging CIOs to perform their jobs, you could guarantee that they would be looking for a job very quickly.

Next time, explain to CIOs how new ideas are not a bad thing, and the companies that fall out of the spotlight are usually the ones that missed out on how to transform their business.

IT should not dictate a business strategy but should help enable it and make it more efficient and help create market advantage and leadership.

Mark

Dear Mark:

I find it interesting that you equate any interference with you getting "traction" in a company with "CEOs not having any access to new ideas from CIOs afraid of their own shadow."

I know that effective salespeople must believe in their products. But it is presumptuous for you to assume that your MBA and 12 years of sales and marketing experience qualifies you to assume that the "dismal performance" of bricks and mortar companies is directly linked to CIOs interfering with software salespeople meeting senior executives. Besides, last time I looked, some new wave companies were suffering a lot more than the traditional corporations.

Certainly, it can be upsetting when you find that the information technology group doesn't seem to comprehend the value of your product vs. that of the competition. But, it is possible--and, frankly, probable--that the IT group understands the needs of the company better than you do. Part (if not most) of the CIO's job is to ensure that the overall needs of the business reflect the potential of information technology. No CIO in his or her right mind would want to deny anyone useful systems. However, CIOs do not want software installed that is not cost effective or will cause more problems for the corporation than it solves.

Trying to sell around the information technology group loses you the advantage of learning what you can from them and prevents you from better tailoring your offerings to the potential client's needs. In my experience, I've always found that smart salespeople try to make an ally of the IT department.

Forget About The Good Old Days--Concentrate On Keeping Your Job

Dear Mr. Lovelace:

I found your article, "In the Good Old Days," right on target. In fact, I will have to take inventory of my own references in the future. As we (corporate America) move into the future, more and more people will bounce from company to company in search of promotions and challenges. Few people retire from their first or even second jobs as our parents did. Consequently, we will be faced with more and more employees who want to talk about the good old days.

Perhaps the human-resources people should include a section in the employee handbook concerning references to "The Good Old Days." Tell them to use the company suggestion box for changes. They may even get a bonus if a suggestion is implemented.

Thanks again, Bill

Dear Bill:

Your idea is a good one. Maybe we should go one step further when we want to communicate how things were done in the old company. We could write down our comments and file them in our desk drawer until the urge to trumpet them passes, or a year or two elapses, whichever occurs first.

John's problem, as you indicated, was that he wanted to talk about how things were done in the old organization, to the point that people questioned whether he would ever whole-heartedly support the new one. The result was deadly for his career. For anyone whose company has been acquired, it makes a lot of sense to offer up suggestions that improve the new organization whenever possible--without always feeling the need to remind the rest of the crew that this was the way things were done "back when I was in ..."

Come to think of it, not using that phrase is probably equally wise when we talk to our children, although infinitely harder to avoid.

Thanks for writing.


NOTE TO READERS: As I've mentioned, I am planning to put my InformationWeek columns into a book with a little bit of additional commentary around the events and people about whom I write. If any reader would like to be notified of such an event, please drop me an E-mail and I'll build a mailing list to let you know about it. Just use the word BOOK as the subject line.

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