How CIOs Build Bridges With Other C-Level Execs

Top-notch CIOs are boosting IT’s reputation and forming stronger relationships with other business leaders

Technology runs the world these days, but CIOs don’t. More often than not when a business’s mission is on the line, CIOs instead encounter the type of reaction Toyota Motor Sales USA VP and CIO Zack Hicks got from one fellow executive during the height of the company’s vehicle recalls in 2010: Our hair’s on fire; we don’t have time for an IT project.

The tendency of business execs to see IT as being useful only for projects is a huge challenge for CIOs at every size enterprise, in every industry. At Toyota, Hicks has long focused his IT team on understanding what people throughout the company do every day to shorten the time between expressing a need and getting a solution, which led to many business improvements. But even if the IT group sees itself as a strategic player, the proof is ultimately whether the rest of the company feels the same way.

Recognizing that public perception was one of Toyota’s main concerns during the recalls, an IT group that was testing a business analytics tool decided to apply it to complaints data received by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Within six hours, we had tremendous insight into what NHTSA’s data was actually saying versus what the press was saying,” Hicks says. The data showed some areas where Toyota could help address consumer and investor fears.

But holding that information wasn’t enough. It was just as important that Hicks, after being brushed away by the first executive he approached, didn’t back off from demonstrating IT’s potential value as a partner. (It would have been easy, he admits, to fall back into focusing on the back-end systems that were breaking under the strain of the increased volume of calls, which shot from the usual 3,000 a day to 92,000 a day during the crisis.) Instead, he took those results directly to his president, who insisted that the entire executive team look at the tool to see if they could leverage it.

The episode was a dramatic demonstration of IT’s ability to be part of the strategic business conversation.

“This is where knowing I have a team that knows enough about our business—and being willing to make that strategic bet—really paid off,” Hicks says. With this example, the analytics project moved quickly into production to help functions across the company build and sell the cars consumers want.

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