by CIO Staff

Delivering on Business Challenges

Jan 01, 20078 mins

DEFINITION Operational Experts place a huge emphasis on their project management and execution skills, and their IT department’s primary mission during the past year was to cut costs. These CIOs thrive in enterprises where the pressure to deliver IT systems on time, under budget and with full user acceptance is high.

Today’s Operational CIO can be forgiven for not responding right away to an interview request. “I will be hard to catch this week,” said one. “My calendar is full,” said another.

Managing systems architecture. Leading projects. Putting out fires. It’s all in a day’s work for these unsung heroes of the business, according to “The State of the CIO 2007” survey. Where this CIO thrives is in small or mid-market operations where the pressure to deliver IT systems on time, under budget and with full user acceptance is high—and so is the opportunity to showcase finely honed project management and negotiation skills. In the smaller organizations that are their habitat, these CIOs’ implementation of, say, a complicated and expensive ERP system can make or break the business. So failure is not an option.

Such was the case when Christine Leja took the CIO job in 2000 at Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC), a community college system with 25,000 students and $66 million in revenue. Her marching orders were simple: “Don’t do anything else, just ERP,” she recalls. SWIC viewed the PeopleSoft ERP implementation as critical to its future ability to compete and grow enrollment. It had to succeed. The administrators saw the project as “the number-one priority of IT,” Leja says.

But SWIC had never had a CIO or formal IT department before. When Leja arrived she discovered a decentralized, outdated IT operation with no network integration or services. “We were extremely behind,” she says. She knew she had to convince the administration that other tasks—such as upgrading the network—were just as important to its future. “If you only do ERP, you won’t have a network,” she told them. Without one, she explained, students and faculty wouldn’t get the newer technologies and services they expected, and SWIC’s growth would be stymied. SWIC’s administration agreed, so Leja began developing a strategic IT plan, which included project prioritization, that meshed with SWIC’s organizational plan, which further cemented the fledgling bond between the two groups.

Leja’s handling of the situation exemplifies traits common to Operational CIOs: meeting the challenges head on, with quiet confidence and tactical resolve that leads to small successes that IT can build upon.

“At some point,” says Michael O’Dell, CIO of Pacific Coast Cos., a large building and construction supplier, “results speak much louder than words.”


Operational CIOs rely heavily on their ability to communicate with business users and key stakeholders about what they need from IT. Indeed, 59 percent called it their top personal skill. They love working with frontline users and solving their problems by using smart, well-thought-out technologies. These CIOs have a deep desire to understand their organization’s business processes—nearly 50 percent cited this as a top skill, higher than any other archetype.

Anne Coffin, CIO of Beck/Arnley, which specializes in premium replacement parts for all foreign nameplate vehicles, is keenly aware of the company’s core competencies: experience in sourcing products globally, excellent distribution mechanisms and superior customer support, all of which derive from its data. For example, in Beck/Arnley’s industry, “parts proliferation” is a common issue. “Given the number of years, models and makes, it adds up to a lot of part numbers, as well as many ways of researching, analyzing and globally sourcing those parts,” Coffin notes. “IT has to understand how important those data elements are.” Accurate data has to be “a given,” she says.

Insight into the business plays to the Operational CIO’s other strength: project management. “It is essential to have project management skills, to deliver what and when you say you will,” Coffin says. In 2005, Beck/Arnley became a privately held company after being owned by a large company for years. Coffin and her staff had six months to develop a team, build an infrastructure, convert all the company’s data and not disrupt operations. Coffin hit the deadline—from e-mail to enterprise system. “Missing dates isn’t an option,” Coffin says. “Once we’d agreed to it, we were going to move heaven and earth to make it happen.”

What makes Operational CIOs such strong project managers is the emphasis they place on their negotiation skills—significantly more than the other archetypes. “Project management extends to determining scope, and scope management requires negotiation,” explains Coffin. Peeling back a layer of the data, this group also has the highest level of consulting experience, which explains their ability to mollify demanding internal customers over a project’s life. “Project management is not just moving dates around on a chart, it’s really people management,” says Coffin. “And it’s frequently people management with people that do not report you.”


For many Operational CIOs, the business side of the house isn’t a big believer in the value of IT. Their mission, then, is to win it over. They can do that best by delivering on what they promise—whether it’s a small project win, or a strategic plan that aligns IT with the goals of the business. With each success comes respect and credibility. “You can’t do [anything] without users who believe in you,” Coffin says.

Good communication is key to inspiring such confidence. At Southwestern Illinois College, Leja first had to play the role of interpreter with the top administrators to gain their trust. “You really had to speak English for them to understand why things were done in IT the way they were,” she recalls.

But when the business doesn’t know how a functional technology department should work, it has little confidence in IT. Not surprising, 44 percent of Operational CIOs said they have difficulty proving the value of IT, the highest percentage of any archetype and significantly higher than CIOs who are Turnaround Artists (18 percent) and Business Leaders (26 percent). Operational CIOs also reported the lowest budgets of all the archetypes and the highest percentage of budgets less than $5 million (69 percent). While these CIOs mostly hail from small and midsize organizations with smaller budgets, the disconnect between business and IT can negatively affect funding.

Despite the obstacles, Operational CIOs desire to be more strategic; in fact, they rated strategic planning as one of their top three personal skills. However, they don’t have as much time as their colleagues do to devote to it: Operational CIOs spent just 23 percent of their time on strategic business planning—significantly less than any other archetype.

They also reported to the CEO much less often (23 percent) than the other archetypes and spent little time interacting with external business partners and customers. This reluctance to “press the flesh” and shmooze up and down Mahogany Row is a byproduct of a hectic workload and a tendency toward introversion. “It is a traditional IT weakness: We’re not great socializers,” Leja says. Over the years, she has worked hard “to get past that, to learn how to socialize at a VP level.”

This reticence means these CIOs are sometimes hesitant to market the strengths and successes of the IT organization—and themselves—to the business. “I would rather work on solutions [for the company],” says Pacific Coast’s O’Dell. He says there is a fine line between “tooting our own horn or informing people” of what’s going on in IT.

But however reluctant Operational CIOs are to sing their own praises, they must do it to ensure IT plays a leading role in the business. Marketing becomes even more crucial if a CIO aspires to move her IT department out of the operational mode and into that of an innovation or business partner relationship. But such change won’t come overnight, according to Laurie Orlov, a vice president and research director at Forrester Research. Operational CIOs have to be realistic about what the business really wants from IT. If there’s no business appetite for more proactive recommendations from IT, she says, these CIOs are likely to be stuck in operational mode for a long time to come.

Your Best Fit

Operational CIOs are a different breed. Where they see smoke, they know there’s fire, and they move toward it. As such, they are drawn to lead organizations that are grappling with 21st-century IT demands while trying to get by with 20th-century infrastructures. At SWIC, Leja knew there would be technology hurdles. “I didn’t come in blind,” she says.

Based on our research, the Operational CIO tends to succeed in organizations where: IT supports the business (first and foremost); a premium is placed on alignment of business goals and IT processes; business continuity and staff development are key; ensuring data security and integrity is paramount; lots of open-source, SOA or e-commerce skills are not necessary; and the business side knows it needs IT help.

“The business side is not looking for whizbang technology solutions,” O’Dell says. “They’re looking for practical solutions that make financial sense and offer a competitive advantage.”