Feature

Editor's Letter: IT Relationships Under the Microscope

I heard a West Point professor address a roomful of CIOs recently, telling some gripping tales about how military leaders grudgingly accept (or just tolerate) IT. "How do you change an organization's culture to make its executives actually value IT?" he asked. "CIOs get it, but do their bosses?"

Those questions set off quite a buzz, as IT execs from a wide selection of midmarket companies started comparing notes on how their relationships with their business colleagues were going. And here, as the stories for this issue were coming together, we also noted a recurring theme around that core connection between IT and business.

Good relationships are vital in managing outside technology suppliers, for example. In our "Invoking the Channel" story, CIO Dale Frantz of Auto Warehousing Co. underscores how critical a "face-to-face relationship" with his vendors has become. "If a vendor is not in a position to do that or won't commit the people, we will exclude them from the business," he says bluntly.

When I was interviewing two PBS executives for our 2-Way Street conversation, the relationship between the chief technologist and the VP of operations really shaped the discussion. Operations VP Gwen Wood characterized the IT/business relationship as being "like baseball: with a pitcher and a catcher. You can't have one without the other."

Our case study on IT leadership at Majestic Insurance Co. in San Francisco also underscores the human aspects of making alignment work. Majestic CEO John Sullivan calls his CIO, James Woolwine, "a great communicator." Crossing the IT/business divide can also mean job security. Forrester Research analyst Marc Cecere points out that most CIOs don't get fired over project failures but rather "because of the CIOs' relationship with their bosses and peers" (see "M&A Power Play").

Part and parcel of relationship-building at midsized companies is the ability of the top technologist to explain the IT strategy so that everyone on the business side can understand and appreciate it.

The ongoing challenges of aligning IT and business were a major focus last month at Gartner Inc.'s Midsize Enterprise Summit. Only one-third of IT spending in midsized companies drops directly to the bottom line of improving business performance, Gartner says, while about two-thirds of midmarket IT spending is earmarked for infrastructure and "utility" applications such as email. The analysts pointed out how midmarket CIOs often aren't included in the business strategy meetings where company goals are set. That speaks directly to the relationship issue.

"The demand for a new kind of IT leadership has never been higher," writes Thornton May in this month's installment of his CIO Habitat research. "That new kind of leadership must balance a significant injection of human skills into the discipline while at the same time delivering insight and deep understanding into how technology actually works."

That dual challenge exists in companies of all sizes, but it's particularly acute at midsized ones because of the tighter resources, smaller staffs and, in many industries, the accelerating pace of growth and change. Check out what your peers are saying and doing about this challenge throughout this issue -- and let us know what you think.

This was first published in April 2005

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