I recently returned to work after a three-week absence. No, I wasn’t sick, nor had I checked myself into an insane asylum. I was on a planned family vacation. Remember those? I know it’s hard to imagine, but I’m a CIO who actually found time to both plan and take a trip. What’s more, I was able to relax completely, confident in the knowledge that I had left the IT department functioning smoothly during my time off.
I’d like to share with you some ideas that will get you back on the beach and at the same time make you a more valuable member of your organization’s executive team. After all, you can’t take a vacation unless your IT is in order.
Down to Business
As CIOs, we know our raison d’etre is to help our company reach its business objectives through the use of information technology. The problem is, too often the technology gets out of our control. The results are twofold. First, we spend all of our time fixing technology issues, and second, our title gets tarnished. In the eyes of our fellow top brass we are reduced to Mr. Fix-It, and we’re too preoccupied putting out fires to be involved in important business decisions.
Avoiding that fate isn’t so difficult. A good place to start is relearning the business of your company. I work for a manufacturer of phosphate products used in a wide variety of goods, from foods to cleaning products and pharmaceuticals. Although the actual creation of those products relies very little on the IT my department provides, I’ve obliged myself to understand their processes. Toward that end, I’ve immersed myself not only in the technology but also in the company. For example, when we implemented SAP across the enterprise, I volunteered to work nights and some weekends at our largest distribution center, assisting in inventory and warehouse management activities such as cycle counting and reconciliations. The result is that I now have a much better understanding of the needs of particular departments in relation to what they are aiming to accomplish. With firsthand knowledge of the processes and issues in the distribution centers, for example, I’ve been able to effectively implement and participate in resolutions to startup problems, working side-by-side with my business colleagues.
Once you understand the business, start learning the company’s short- and long-term goals. That means making choices between the slick demos that your favorite vendors invite you to attend and the regular staff meetings of your key internal groups such as manufacturing, sales and so on. I find it easier to occasionally excuse myself from business meetings to take part in vendor and technology interactions than vice versa—but technology interests need to take a backseat to business imperatives. That business perspective will provide the framework for every IT decision you ever have to make. In the vendor and technology exploration process, for example, you’ll be better able to match technology promise with business need or opportunity.
With a good understanding of business objectives, you can evaluate and implement an effective enterprise technology platform. That may sound easy enough, but many of us get sidetracked there. Instead of selecting and implementing technologies we know intimately, we tend to give in to our technology cravings, spending a disproportionate amount of time and money evaluating new applications, operating systems and hardware. Don’t get wrapped up in that never-ending cycle. Your time, expertise and energy are better used elsewhere. I suggest sticking with the best-of-breed products you’ve used successfully in the past, “changing horses” only if there are compelling, long-term issues that mandate change (and purchase price seldom qualifies as such a reason).
Along those lines, also concentrate on implementing an IT platform that is reliable and can quickly adapt to the company’s changing needs. That way, when your CEO comes to you and says a potential client requires electronic billing and invoicing, you can put him at ease that an infrastructure is in place that can accommodate those specific requirements.
Next, you can turn your attention to utilizing your limited human capital. The first step is recognizing where you could use some expertise to improve your total offering. Where I work I realized that we didn’t have the expertise to run and host our critical SAP applications internally, so I turned to an outside provider. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Selecting the right IT services provider is where CIOs must exercise discipline, diligence and business acumen. Make sure you meet with the vendor multiple times prior to signing a contract to observe their technicians in action and make certain you get along with and respect their executive team outside of the business relationship. Ask to see their entire customer list instead of the few selected references that they may provide. Speak to as many of those customers as possible, especially the ones in your industry. Specifically look for cases where something went wrong, and focus on how the vendor handled the resolution. In doing so you’ll improve the chances of a successful partnership.
The Bigger Picture
With this well-designed and well-staffed IT organization, a whole new world opens up to you. You have more room and time to focus on bigger issues, and you come to realize that the technology is actually only the means by which you and your company can accomplish its objectives.
After recovering from the initial shock of not having to worry about every minuscule operational issue, I was ready to move on and be part of something more relevant—namely, focusing my efforts on making the company a success. The first time that shift became clear to me was during a meeting in which I was articulating the vision of an IT project. Rather than drawing a detailed diagram with layers of technologies and lines connecting them, I drew a simple solid box. That box represented an entire IT system. I was no longer bogged down with worries about integrating particular systems; instead, I was beginning to see the infrastructure as a utility available to me to provide services as needed. I was no longer thinking like a tech-weenie who maintained the technology but rather as a business leader.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed the change—so did other members of the executive team. In time, they were seeking my advice on other business issues, not just IT.
It didn’t all happen overnight, of course. But if you can understand the company’s goals, assemble a flexible IT platform and find focused outside providers, you’ll become a CIO who is part of the bigger picture. Then you’ll be able to exercise your business acumen and balance your technology cravings—not to mention having a lot more time to enjoy that family vacation.
George Tomko is CIO of Astaris, a joint venture company owned by FMC and Solutia. Astaris is a supplier of phosphorus chemicals, phosphoric acid and phosphate salts.