THE STATE OF THE CIO - A CIO's Responsibilities

For Mary Fonder, most days on the job are consumed by thinking big. The CIO at Maysteel, a maker of casings for electrical and electronics equipment manufacturers in Milwaukee, Fonder devotes most of her time and energy to figuring out how IT can help the company compete and support business goals. She spent a big chunk of last year?her first in the job?explaining to fellow executives why Maysteel should deploy a business-to-business Web portal to make customer transactions more efficient, then setting the direction for the project. "Before I came, the senior staff didn’t know what a portal was," says Fonder. One of her major responsibilities is to "educate [them] on the technologies that will help our company," she says.

The role as a strategic player is one that Fonder relishes. "I’m not much of a day-to-day implementer," she reflects, talking on the phone from the windowless, blue-and-burgundy-paneled office she took over when she moved her department into an old training room near the factory floor.

Fonder’s strategic imperative is not unusual. Whether at small private companies like Maysteel or large public corporations, the CIO job today is defined for executives such as Fonder who are business strategists first and technologists second. According to "The State of the CIO" survey, two-thirds of the 500 technology executives who responded are compensated or evaluated for their leadership and for making their companies profitable, rather than for getting projects done on time and within budget (for more about CIO salaries, see "Salary," Page 90).

The business orientation of the job is also reflected in what CIOs do with their time. The survey found that they spend almost half of it communicating with fellow senior executives, department heads, customers and suppliers, and only 15 percent of their time learning about technology. That’s a far cry from a decade ago. When Fonder took her first position as a top IT executive in the early 1990s, she spent most of her time picking the technology to build her company’s first LAN and researching ERP vendors. By the time she left for Maysteel last year, she had redefined her job into that of a strategic adviser, and she relied on her staff for technical expertise.

In interviews, CIOs who responded to the survey say that being a business leader means looking beyond the letter of their job responsibilities. Business leadership means CIOs are held accountable for high-profile projects that will have a big impact on their company or that demand their particular skills. For instance, Vincent Laino, senior vice president, and chief information and financial officer with environmental engineering company Roy F. Weston in West Chester, Pa., works closely with non-IT colleagues to craft an electronic document management strategy for the $250 million company. The project could change many of the company’s existing business processes, which involve producing documents for clients. Laino figures that if the company goes ahead with the project, it will cost several million dollars, and he wants to ensure that there will be a positive ROI before delegating it to a project manager.

Meanwhile, responsibility for keeping systems running and projects on track still comes with the territory. "I can’t talk about new ideas if the stuff I deliver is broken and I’m not servicing [the business] well," says Peter Lopez, CIO with Cleveland-based GE Lighting, a division of General Electric. With so much of CIOs’ time taken up by strategic responsibilities, the ability to effectively delegate daily decisions about operations, systems development and personnel to the managers who report to them is critical. "I am extremely dependent on capable people who work for me," says James Bingham, associate vice chancellor for information resources and CIO with the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. His academic department, which has an IT budget exceeding $178 million annually, includes schools of medicine, nursing and health professions as well as a teaching hospital. As the CIO job has evolved to encompass more strategic responsibilities, the position hasn’t been transformed so much as expanded from its tactical, keep-the-lights-on roots. "People evaluate me based on whether I solve their problems or create their problems," says Bingham. "The difference between what is strategic and what is tactical is fine at times."

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