by Carrie Mathews

Business Skills

Aug 01, 20053 mins
Business IT Alignment

What if you built it and no one came? Or to put the question into IT terms, what if you built it and no one used it? CIOs confront this situation every day as they try to ensure that the products they provide solve real business problems. The stars are those IT teams that have keen insight into business needs.

At a recent CIO Executive Council meeting, CIOs expressed that building business skills and knowledge is becoming the most important element of staff development. Here are some ways they are doing that.

1] Bring the business into IT. Mary Finlay, deputy CIO at Partners HealthCare System, hires clinicians to be part of her IT staff. “Their influence is especially apparent when we’re developing systems for clinicians, where they have the firsthand experience,” Finlay says. Some of the nurses and physicians on her team have an IT or health informatics background, but others have no formal IT expertise. Finlay provides them both job training and in-house project management training.

2] Go on a field trip. If you can’t bring business expertise into the IT team, send the team to the business. Many companies offer job-shadowing opportunities related to specific business projects, but Lynn Caddell, senior vice president and CIO at Waste Management, thinks that one of the keys to understanding the business is to know the entire process. Waste Management offers an annual tour of the trash process, with stops at a transfer station, a landfill and the terminal where garbage trucks are garaged. She encourages her IT staff to participate so that they can see how the systems they build are used. And the knowledge they gain helps staff in another way: “During the visits, participants should be anticipating future enhancements in the process. This way, they can build future capabilities into the technology design on their end,” says Caddell.

3] Hang out with successful business peers. Gerry McCartney, assistant dean of technology at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management, encourages his high-potential IT staff to “find the best marketers, the best salespeople, and spend time with them. These relationships will help keep you abreast of what’s happening on the business side and will provide solid internal networking opportunities.” He gives this same advice to business school faculty as well. McCartney finds that his top IT performers take advantage of the school’s knowledge base and schedule private meetings with their business partners to discuss ongoing projects. In doing so, they gain valuable business skills and improve their performance.

4] Promote your relationship with the business. Partners’ Finlay uses departmental communication to not only inform her team of ongoing business projects but also to highlight the importance of IT to the business. In a recent IT newsletter, clinicians on the business side shared their thoughts about what IT means in their daily work. These testimonials from senior business executives effectively publicize how the business is using IT to improve patient services and business processes. And, according to a February 2005 CIO survey of 98 IT executives, the best way to improve the business perception of IT’s value is for business sponsors and users to communicate that value themselves (see “Turning IT Doubters into True Believers,” June 1).

Carrie Mathews, Member Services Manager, CIO Executive Council

The CIO Executive Council is a professional organization for CIOs founded by CIO’s publisher. To learn more about the Council, visit or contact Director of Program Development David lien at or 508-935-4493.