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The great CIO challenge of 2004

What's the biggest challenge for CIOs in 2004? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Ask a CIO to name the biggest challenge 2004 holds, and you'll probably get the same look and response you'd get...

if you asked a Beatles fanatic to name his favorite Fab Four song: "You want me to name just one?"

Ask an analyst, though, and you're more likely to get a single answer.

So what will be the greatest challenge for CIOs in 2004? According to Andrew Bartels of Forrester Research Inc., it will be to anticipate where the business unit is going before it actually goes there.

"A lot of CIOs have done a good job getting costs under control. As we get into a stronger [economic] recovery, there will be a shift in the gears -- business units will call and say, 'I need this yesterday,'" Bartels said.

CIOs will need to know what those needs are going to be, so that when the business folks start asking questions, IT will have the answers -- like, "Yes, we've known about this technology, we've looked into it, and we can get it ready within two months." This way, the business unit will realize that IT is not a bottleneck, but a partner, Bartels said.

Patty Azzarello, president and CEO of IT management software maker Euclid Inc., in San Jose, Calif., agrees.

"CIOs need to proactively get into the business plan before the business drivers come to them," she said. "IT can no longer be in the back room -- it's about business needs and how IT can improve upon and get ahead of the business plan."

John Pfeiffer, CIO of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), isn't just anticipating where the business is going, he's leading the way.

"So much of our current business plan revolves around automation that I am in the center of it [the plan]," he said. "CCA's new board and management team consider IT a significant component of the business plan and, with that idea in mind, they said, 'Tell us what to do.'"

Pfeiffer is trying to bring CCA, the largest for-profit prison company in the U.S., into the 1990s, technology-wise. The Nashville, Tenn.-based firm is about 10 years behind the curve, he said, and has begun to automate functions that human hands have performed since the firm was founded 21 years ago.

"The company has given me the budget -- the big challenge is change management," he said. "I am trying to convince people that you can use a computer to book an inmate online, not paper invoices."

Thomas Lindell, CIO of West Bend Mutual Insurance Co., in West Bend, Wis., comes from a business background, and he doesn't think anticipating where the business is going is his department's greatest challenge. That honor falls on something even more basic -- knowing that IT is working on the right projects and executing them on time and on budget. He added that surrounding himself with skilled technical people and heeding their advice is key.

"We're aligned financially with the business units," he said. "All we have to do now is execute."

"I've got to know my limitations," he said. "I think all of management will [be] much more judicious in what they request, and IT units will have to deliver the numbers and the performance they promise."

SAS Institute Inc. has a system in place that ensures its business units know exactly what to expect from IT, and vice versa. Suzanne Gordon, CIO of the Cary, N.C.-based software behemoth, said that she gets together with other division heads to discuss what's good for the whole company. SAS also has set up an IT governance council and established a formal communication mechanism, so each side knows what the other is doing. "There are contacts around the company to find out what people are talking about and to make everyone aware of what's going on," Gordon said.

Judging from these comments, look for IT to break out of its silo within corporate walls. IT isn't all about IT anymore. "You're not in IT for IT's sake," Lindell said. "You're in it to enable the business. [Our] business unit anticipates that we're going to be looking out for its best interests."


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