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Building IT to the 'point of no return'

At this week's SIMposium in Dallas, CIOs agree that success means taking the 'get yourself a seat at the executive table' advice to the next level.

DALLAS -- Want a seat at the executive table with the big boys? No amount of posturing will get you there, but...

if you can convince top execs that the company is doomed to fail without IT (and you), they'll be fighting over who gets to find you a chair.

CIOs need to make information technology so essential to the company that it can't do business without it, said John Thompson, former CIO and current acting president of retail sales at Crossmark, the Plano, Texas-based provider of merchandising services to the packaged goods industry. This is a state he described as the "point of no return."

When someone is between you and the CEO, someone is interpreting the things you are doing or saying [to him].
Michael L. Jones
CIOChildren's Hospital and Health System
Thompson, who spoke Monday at the Society for Information Management's SIMposium, said companies whose competitive advantages are powered by IT are companies where CIOs have succeeded. He cited FedEx Corp., whose package tracking system revolutionized the shipping industry, and Southwest Airlines Co., whose IT has streamlined the company and made it one of the only profitable airlines in the country.

When the CIO makes it clear to his company's leadership that information technology is powering the company's competitive advantage, then he gets a seat at the executive table, Thompson said. By then executives realize how important information technology is.

But to truly reach that point, he said, the CIO must also have a deep understanding of his business.

One of the best ways to gain insight into the business and its needs is to talk to the company's salesforce, Thompson said. Customers tell salespeople every day what the company is doing right and what it's doing wrong.

Michael L. Jones, corporate vice president and CIO of Children's Hospital and Health System in Milwaukee, said there are other important ways for the CIO and his organization to gain an understanding of the business.

Jones has individuals in his information technology organization who have the skills and knowledge of the business users within his company.

"I have doctors and nurses who work for me because it helps me understand the business," Jones said. "One of our managers in the applications area is a nurse. She is a project manager for our critical systems."

Randall Mills, CIO of RN Centers International Inc., a Plano, Texas-based company that provides registered nurse call centers and other custom services for employers looking to control health care costs, said a CIO who doesn't understand his own business will stand out as a non-team player.

Mills also said CIOs who don't get a seat at the executive table will find that "business decisions will be made that IT cannot support."

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Without the CIO in the room there is no one to warn top executives about the limits of the company's IT resources, Mills said. The businesses that have already committed to a new and untenable technology strategy will be forced to enter costly contracts with outside consultants to get the initiative done.

Jones said before he accepted an offer to join the hospital, he insisted he report directly to the organization's CEO rather than a COO or CFO.

"Especially when someone is between you and the CEO, someone is interpreting the things you are doing or saying [to him]," Jones said.

An intermediary sitting between the CIO and the executive table can prevent the CIO from getting direct support from the CEO on new initiatives, which can compromise his authority. Also, Jones said, the CIO loses the opportunity to have a dialogue with the CEO.

"It makes things a lot easier if you have that interaction and relationship with the CEO where you will be able to bounce ideas of each other, instead of having your ideas interpreted to him by someone else," Jones said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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