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Miles To Go

These CEOs say IT can go much further in helping them solve their business problems

With the CEOs of five major companies sitting across from him, Microsoft group VP Jeff Raikes recently described how he uses three tablet PCs in his daily work, keeping his data synced up via Microsoft software. The place was a conference room at Microsoft's headquarters; the subject, IT and business productivity. It was an unscripted anecdote of how one busy high-tech exec stays at the top of his game--and a stark reminder of the gap that separates power users like Raikes from millions of information workers.

Brad Anderson -- Photo by Ron Wurzer/ Getty
Klaus Kleinfeld -- Photo by Ron Wurzer/ Getty
Joe Forehand -- Photo by Ron Wurzer/ Getty
Michael Marks -- Photo by Ron Wurzer/ Getty
Gubby Barlow -- Photo by Ron Wurzer/ Getty

Best Buy's Anderson, Siemens USA's Kleinfeld, Accenture's Forehand, Flextronics' Marks and Premera's Barlow (from top) say their companies are far from mastering the technologies they use.
The discussion came at the tail end of Microsoft's annual CEO Summit, attended by about 100 chief executives on May 21 and 22. They had gotten a full dose from Microsoft's senior managers on the company's business-technology strategy and philosophy--and dinner at the home of chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates. Each attendee was given a new tablet PC loaded with the latest Microsoft productivity tools to use during the conference and, if they chose, to take with them.

Yet, as impressed as they might be with the gadgetry and software demonstrations, the CEOs at Raikes' roundtable discussion--representing Accenture, Best Buy, Flextronics, Premera Blue Cross, and Siemens USA--made it clear that neither Microsoft nor the rest of the IT industry has satisfied all their companies' needs when it comes to using IT to solve business problems and boost productivity. In fact, their companies are far from mastering the technologies they have in place. "We're nowhere near the end of this road, nowhere near," said Michael Marks, chief executive of Flextronics, which manufactures equipment for tech companies such as Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard. "We have a project list as long as our arm about the next things to do."

It might seem obvious that companies continue to expect more from their IT investments, if it weren't for the growing debate, being played out in the media and at industry events like this, over whether IT has matured to the point that it's becoming little more than a support function. A day earlier, Gates tried to debunk that point of view: "We're from the camp that says when it comes to defining new applications and thinking about business processes, IT is so central to the way work gets done and the quality of that work, and there are so many opportunities to do that better, that [keeping] it as part of the overall business strategy is very, very important."

The CEOs at the roundtable seem to agree. Their business-technology challenges, they said, range from the basics of information integration and E-mail management to figuring out how to get employees to absorb new technologies and apply them to better serve customers. "We haven't [spent] enough time looking at the human dynamics," said Brad Anderson, CEO of electronics retailer Best Buy.

On their technology wish lists: new ways to collaborate. "What I expect from our IT systems is to be reconfigurable and adjustable to a full group of users," said Klaus Kleinfeld, president and CEO of Siemens USA. "If I have people sitting in Sweden who specialize in offshore oil drilling, and I have a customer sitting in Texas who wants to do some offshore oil drilling, I need to make sure, in the shortest time possible, that the data flows." There's huge potential for companies that can figure out how to tap more quickly into the knowledge of individual employees, he said.

Photos of Brad Anderson, Klaus Kleinfeld, Joe Forehand, Michael Marks and Gubby Barlow by Ron Wurzer/ Getty

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