CIO career track favors process management, IT specialization chops

CIOs concerned about their career track should take a hard look at IT specialization and find ways to become the business' BPM guru.

In my quiet moments (whenever I have them), I ponder the evolving role of IT. Right now, I believe, we are on the

brink of massive changes to that role. CIOs looking to solidify their career track would be wise to recognize that the current trend toward IT specialization puts business process management (BPM) skills at an all-time premium.

Niel Nickolaisen
The Real Niel
Niel Nickolaisen

The fact is that these days it's possible for most enterprises to get a whole host of IT services from specialized providers, not from their traditional IT organization. Historically, employees who wanted a new application (or phone system, network connections and so forth) worked with their IT department. Today, third-party providers specialize in products and services that anyone can access -- with or without involving their IT department. Thus, my belief that this trend toward IT specialization is a big deal for career-driven CIOs.

As I ponder the trend's long-term implications, it seems to me that CIOs concerned about their career track should start assessing where they, too, must specialize. Sure, many traditional IT services are available elsewhere, but CIOs' in-depth knowledge of technology and organizational processes is not. Perhaps we should think about the role of chief process officer. After all, we know the business rules, process and information flows, and decision-making processes better than any other department or person in the organization.

Even better, this process-expertise role is one that most organizations sorely need. Too often we make decisions with incomplete information, navigate overly complex processes, and suffer from business rules that are probably obsolete.

For example, my team and I were faced once with the strategic goal of reducing our organization's Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) performance. The accounting group was struggling to find a way to do this, because our credit, sales and invoicing processes ran through several departments. Who had horizontal knowledge of the entirety of these business processes? The IT department, of course.

We met with accounting and helped them recognize that reducing DSO depended on their improving their credit process controls, flagging late accounts early and changing some sales metrics. Our horizontal view of this process allowed us to identify things we could do to standardize, then automate critical elements of the process (for example, automating the identification of potentially late accounts). The net result was a nearly 15% reduction in our DSO and an improved cash flow.

In another case, the chief marketing officer (CMO) was trying to figure out when it was time to do a customer intervention. Ideally, he needed a way to know when a customer was starting to drift away. If we knew this, we could take some action that would stop the customer from straying. We didn't want to treat all customers as if they were in need of an intervention, however, because that would be wasteful -- and might irritate our loyal customers.

From his somewhat isolated perspective, the CMO was looking for intervention indicators within the company's marketing processes and activities. This perspective was not broad enough, however. The customers had touch points across the entire enterprise. Which group knew about all these touch points? Again, it was the IT department.

We went to the CMO with a list of enterprise customer interactions -- sales order volume and frequency, returned material authorizations, response rates, sales notes, credit applications, payment history, and so forth -- and identified those that could be indicators of customer drift. We did a few pilots to refine our approach and launched the intervention program. So far, it seems to be working: Our customer activity and retention metrics are improving.

These and other examples have taught me that in this age of IT specialization, we CIOs can combine our intimate knowledge of BPM and our technology expertise to become more relevant to our organizations. In an age of IT services becoming increasingly commoditized, there's almost no better way to solidify and bolster today's CIO career track.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governor's University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at nnick@wgu.edu.

This was first published in December 2011

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