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A CIO Conversation: SIM President Nancy Markle

Nancy Markle, a former CIO at Arthur Andersen-Americas and Home Savings of America, discusses her role as president of the Society of Information Mangement (SIM), her take on IT/business alignment issues, offshore outsourcing, the IT work ethic and more.

She's been a CIO at two major organizations, and now she's heading up a network of more than 3,000 industry CIOs and senior IT executives. Nancy Markle, a former CIO at Arthur Andersen-Americas and Home Savings of America, is taking on a new role as this year's president of the Society of Information Mangement (SIM). She brings more than 30 years of IT experience to lead this group of thought leaders. In this exclusive interview with, Markle discusses her take on IT/business alignment issues, offshore outsourcing, the IT work ethic and more.

The majority of CIOs are men. Do you think that will change over time? What skills or attributes do you think women CIOs bring to the table?

Markle: I recall 25 years ago thinking [that] we'd have more women in leadership roles by now. What's interesting is that balancing the home life with work life still seems to be the greatest challenge. Women are expected to give up leadership roles so that we don't sacrifice home life.

Regarding specific skills or attributes of a woman CIO, there are a few. As a woman, I think I'm not threatening. I'm a good listener, and men enjoy talking to me. There are a lot of men in leadership roles in corporations today. Often, they will share things with me more readily than with another male who might be seen as a competitor. It makes it easier to form relationships. Women are taught to please. Mostly, it's the woman who is going to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, send out Christmas cards, etc. It's a societal expectation. So in business, women can take advantage of that and be proactive, thoughtful and creative about how they gather, assess, share and use information. Generally, women are also good listeners and encourage the synergy of their groups to inspire great ideas and increase productivity.

What's the CIO/CFO relationship like? CIOs we've talked to say that their CFOs and business people are pretty IT literate these days.

Markle: There's an inherent conflict between the CIO and CFO, and it's a healthy one. The CFO's job is to watch and limit the expenditures. The CIO knows it is important to spend money on technology to enhance the infrastructure. It is important to plan in advance what the business would likely want because it takes time and money to build the infrastructure, and that extra time or money could potentially slow future projects or place the organization in a vulnerable position.

I've always developed friendly relations with the CFO. I worked hard to understand his issues and discuss what is needed and what benefits it will bring to the business. I learned early on that the CEO would probably say, "If you and the CFO can agree, it's a go". Even more important, if you also have the business people arguing for the initiative, the CEO will likely approve it. If you have anyone fighting against the initiative, then things are questionable. In fact, it is much more appropriate for the business to argue for the initiative and the CIO to support the business.

Who would you say makes a better CIO -- a technologist or a business person? Why?

Markle: You have to be both. You can't do just one or the other. Really good business people don't always have the background to know the technical questions to ask in order to make strong decisions. It takes a good understanding of technology and a good understanding of the business.

SIM has recognized this issue and has created several educational programs to address it: Strategic Business Leadership and the Regional Learning Forum. CEOs and CFOs are telling us that their technology colleagues often don't have the needed business understanding. If the CIO cannot articulate risks and opportunities, the company may make serious mistakes. CIOs should be able to read and understand the organization's financials. They need to understand when to cut back and where to spend money; what technology investments will contribute to business growth or needed process controls.

What are your thoughts about the quality of students and professionals entering the IT workforce today and even five years from now?

Markle: There's not a shortage of IT workers now. My fear is that there will be. Our colleges and universities are cutting back in IT curriculums. There are fewer students studying IT since the technology "bubble" burst. More students are going into finance or accounting or other sciences. Technology was once hot and sexy -- not right now. We see the curriculum contracted and faculty being laid off. Computers are such a fundamental part of our lives, therefore we need smart, creative workers designing the technology to interact with people -- the designers of the man-machine interface. We're not doing a good enough job of training these people or making this type of training available for people to study.

Do you think offshore outsourcing will help or hurt long term plans to develop and retain IT professionals?

Markle: Companies have been outsourcing for a long time now. It's really a hot topic because we have people who don't have jobs now. When we had fewer people out of jobs, it wasn't such a big issue. Some people think offshore outsourcing is a panacea -- it's not. Fifty percent of these projects fail. Some of the countries are investing in their people and making their white-collar workers more skilled. But are we in the U.S. investing in our young people to keep those white-collar jobs in the U.S.? The answer is 'not nearly enough.'

One thing we should note is the work ethic. Many people offshore have [a] stronger work ethic than those in the U.S. To some degree, U.S. workers expect companies to have deep pockets and take care of them -- whether or not they produce and continue to stay abreast of new technologies and trends. There are not those same expectations in some of the other countries. Offshore workers feel they need to work hard to be worthy of the job. U.S. IT workers need to be vigilant about producing, researching, and studying to be worthy of their positions. We need to treat a job not as a right, but as an opportunity.

Is IT/business alignment just an IT issue, or is the business side concerned about it as well?

Markle: IT is trying to understand where the business is taking their organization and what type of technology it will take to get there. The business side always wants more technology than the business can afford. What often happens is that you have a great relationship with one area of the organization and there is favoritism. That area gets first priority. Another department might bitterly complain about IT; and to quell them, that group will also get what it wants from IT. Neither way is healthy for the business. Maintaining the health of the business means doing what makes sense at any given time. It's also very helpful for the business leaders to understand where the technology dollars are going. In some cases you can build an infrastructure that can work for multiple departments. Then you only spend a fraction of the money to satisfy a department's needs. In some cases, you can get more than 50% of value by developing 20% to 30% of the system. IT organizations don't have time or money to do it all. What is vital is to have an effective governance and priority setting process that involves the business leadership.

IT has to learn how to speak business English. We need to understand the business challenges and underlying problems, not just the suggested solutions. The business people often want to do what their colleagues say is the answer or what they've read in a magazine on an airplane. But if IT is involved in the solution with the business, they can be partners and work jointly toward a more creative or effective solution.

What are some of the issues CIOs talk about around the watercooler? Are certain topics constants?

Markle: It does really depend on industry and company size, as well as the management of the company. Across industries, there's been an increase in conversations about regulation, legislation and security -- and of course, offshore outsourcing. A recent SIM survey showed that the biggest topic for CIOs this year is alignment between business and IT.

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