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Business innovation and collaboration inextricably linked, says SAS CIO

Collaboration and innovation are two sides of the same coin, says SAS Institute CIO Keith Collins.

How do CIOs plan and innovate for a future that is constantly being redefined? Certainly not by swapping "innovation" for "information" in their job titles, according to Keith Collins.

Collins, who serves as CIO and CTO for analytics powerhouse SAS Institute Inc., believes that collaboration is the better part of innovation. To drive innovation at their companies, CIOs don't have to "own" all technology. Nor should they be telling business colleagues how to do their jobs. Cross-pollination of ideas is where the big breakthroughs come from, in his experience. The CIO's job is to foment and facilitate that collaboration -- across business groups and between IT and the business. For the IT department, that includes consorting with -- not banishing -- shadow IT.

At SAS, Collins is known for fostering close working relationships with marketing and sales to ensure that the company's technologies align with customer needs and market demand. According to his company bio, he led the effort to develop the company's breakthrough SAS Business Analytics Framework.

SearchCIO caught up with Collins at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, where he participated in a CIO panel on how to drive innovation and manage expectations. Here, he elaborates on ways in which collaboration can be a game changer for CIOs and their IT departments. He begins with some checks and balances that can help CIOs manage the rapid pace of change.

If change is the new normal, and the pace of that change is only increasing, where does the CIO fit into the new reality?

Keith Collins Keith Collins

Keith Collins: A lot of the conversations I have with CIOs are about having a balanced portfolio: Are you spending as much energy and dollars on getting information out as you are on getting information in? Are you doing more to understand the principles of forecasting, optimization, behavior modeling with your team? Does your DBA [data base administrator] actually understand what it means to have missing values in the data? Because that's what the business needs. The business doesn't need you to tell them their business; the business needs you to tell them what techniques and capabilities are there for them to change their business.

Why is a 'balanced portfolio' so important today?

Collins: Most analysts now spend about 80% of their time getting the data right so they can do their job. Well, what a wonderful world this would be if the guys in IT could take on that burden and understood how to deliver the data and why we need it to be in the outbound form, not the inbound form.

You work with a lot of CIOs; what are their top concerns?

Collins: Many of them are trying to understand all of this hype around big data, big analytics, and what it really means to them: How do they get started? What are the skill sets? Who should own it within their organization -- do they own it or do the business units own it? Which I think is a lousy conversation, quite frankly, to be having. But it's one of the big conversations going on.

Why is that a lousy conversation?

Collins: There's so much to be done and so many skills needed. You have to be able to establish the right hypothesis to do the analysis. And the people in the business units are usually people who know how to answer those questions. So, how does IT facilitate that, not own that? If an organization has no skills with analytics, yes, the CIO can be a champion of that -- bringing that in, starting that, incubating that. If it already exists, we shouldn't be fighting it; we should be facilitating it. A lot of people talk poorly about shadow IT. I've got shadow IT in almost every organization, and I want that to be there. I want to collaborate with that and not worry that they're doing something I'm supposed to be doing.

So, how does the CIO collaborate with shadow IT?

Collins: This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the CIO. The [chief marketing officer] now has the budget to buy a point solution out there in the cloud. Great. Who has responsibility for getting data out of that system so that it can be used in the ecosystem? So, if all of your data is out there in Salesforce, but you need to combine the Salesforce information together with your customer information to facilitate all of your agents, who owns that responsibility? There's this great opportunity growing up for IT to use techniques like master data management to synchronize across all of these Software-as-a-Service [technologies]. … You can have a debate about consolidation and bringing everything in-house, which is probably the wrong answer. The right answer should be how do I orchestrate the data across these systems?

What are some best practices for CIOs?

Collins: When it comes to the world of applying and innovating, it's the CIOs, the 'CXOs' -- however you want to put it -- that are looking across industries. So, looking to a bank that solved an interesting problem with customers that might be useful in retail, or an insurance person who is looking across to manufacturing to understand how quality control might apply to customer satisfaction -- those are people who get it because they're looking outside of their domains for innovation. And, of course, that comes all of the way back to [the idea that] innovation happens when you cross disciplines.

So, does the CIO need to become the chief innovation officer?

Collins: Every enterprise needs to be excellent at leveraging technology. So, the CIO doesn't have to know how to run manufacturing as much as they need to know how to help manufacturing be more efficient, help R&D run their labs more efficiently. The chief information officer is not dead at all, and it's not a role that's going away. Every company needs somebody who is going to be the champion of driving their business effectively and efficiently to allow collaboration and innovation to facilitate analytics. Without a CIO, who is going to do that?

In the next year or so, what kinds of talent are you looking to hire and why?

Collins: Who am I not looking to hire, that's the question. I need expert linguists who understand languages across the world and how to deal with unstructured information to turn it into valuable information. I need deep understanding in computational architectures so that we can combine that together with people who have a deep understanding in math and algorithms to completely rethink the algorithms for this velocity piece. I need domain experts that understand risk in banking, fraud in healthcare. Show me a problem set and tell me I don't need to hire, and I'll tell you differently.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or follow her on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

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