Strategic Orientation: How To Engage Business Executives And Make IT Strategic

The CIO of Toyota Motor Sales USA used focus groups and a critical analysis of IT systems and business needs to bridge silos, craft a long-term vision and make a strategic difference.

Too often CIOs sit and lament that their business doesn’t provide them with a clear strategy to map to—something complete, enterprisewide and wrapped in a nice leather binder. I was tired of being one of these CIOs. At Toyota, we were making significant investments in functional systems for discrete parts of the business without an overall view either of how these systems might be better leveraged across the supply chain or how the business would need to operate over the coming years. IT was all about service, alignment and value; we had no rights to influence the strategic direction of the business. We were always behind the business waiting for the handoff. I determined to change that.

I wasn’t so overt as to say I’m going off to establish a beachhead in the strategic planning department. I simply started a series of focus groups with individuals from the planning side of IT and mid-level managers from the planning organizations and line operations on the business side. I deliberately started at the middle level of the organization. When you get that level of people together and make it comfortable for them to speak up, they will share where they see gaps and opportunities. In fact, they were pleased that someone was asking for their input. And, because managers from these different organizations generally work separately, they were happy to be together in a room with their peers from across the company. To take away any pressure, we asked them to focus 10 to 15 years out. If you’re talking three years out, it’s more real. Farther out, you can fantasize a journey, but use the train tracks of the business to get you there.

ALIGNMENT TOOL

You can download Barbra Cooper's template for aligning business strategic with IT (in Excel spreadsheet format) by visiting this link on the CIO Executive Council website.

One area we discussed was quality. We asked, can we maintain our relentless focus on quality with larger volumes and increased complexity of product lines? What would that mean 10 to 15 years from now to our current business processes, our customers and our application portfolio? What effect would telematics have, when every Toyota on the road is equipped to send maintenance and performance data back to the company? We looked at how we would connect from Japan all the way through the supply chain to our U.S. dealers and customers.

STRATEGIC CIO

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After these meetings, we had enough information to triangulate and coalesce 10 business themes. We took our vision as many years out as we could go. I brought the results to the top executives at the company. I didn’t want to scare them, so I was careful to frame the presentation as a request for advice. I told them: As you know, we have a real challenge in IT with more demand than supply, and we want to try to get ahead of the curve. The more I can anticipate—in as refined a way as possible—the better we will be at fulfillment. I wanted to get them comfortable talking about the future and get their opinions about the business drivers I was putting on the table. They suggested some edits and signed off on the strategic vision.

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