by Elana Varon

State of the CIO 2003 Best Practive #6: Assign Liaisons to Business Units

Apr 01, 20035 mins

When Ames Flynn, vice president and CIO of Thomasville Furniture Industries in Thomasville, N.C., wants to know what’s happening in the company trenches, he turns to his application managers. He has charged these five key staff members to do more than provide technical assistance for the manufacturing, sales and distribution functions. They’re also experts on user needs, providing Flynn with early warning of problems and emerging needs. Last summer, for example, the company decided to shift some of its furniture manufacturing operations from Mexico to China. The information technology manager in charge of sales, distribution and furniture manufacturing applications, who reports to Flynn, alerted him that some other project should be put on the back burner to accommodate the new work.

At many companies, IT staff serving as liaisons to business units help CIOs identify common needs across the company, investigate user complaints and help users identify functional requirements for new projects. In “The State of the CIO 2003” survey, 55 percent of best practices CIOs rated this method as highly effective. Top CIOs say there are three keys to using liaisons.

Use Business Experts

Flynn’s application managers all have work experience in the functional areas they support. The manager for manufacturing and administrative systems worked for years in accounting and in Thomasville’s manufacturing plants. The e-business manager has a marketing background. To ensure the managers keep up with what’s happening in the field, Flynn asks them to spend four to five days a year on the front lines, working in the factories or offices where their systems are being used.

Cranmer of the Mayo Clinic subscribes to the same philosophy. For his customer relationship managers, he taps only analysts or IT project managers who are former nurses and lab technicians. Cranmer describes how a critical care nurse he recruited to be his liaison to the clinic’s intensive care unit made a crucial contribution to managing user expectations for a new patient-monitoring system. Nurses and physicians had asked for a system that recorded patients’ vital signs every second?a requirement that would have generated massive amounts of data and slowed its delivery. The former nurse knew no one would ever be able to use that much information. “He had the ability to say, If I was here on my own, I wouldn’t be here handwriting measurements every second,” says Cranmer. Users wanted more frequent monitoring than they could accomplish manually, but recording data once a minute?or every five minutes?could satisfy that requirement in a way that made more sense technically.

Provide a Single Point of Contact

As CIO of the state of Texas, Carolyn Purcell frequently finds herself having to cajole agencies whose budgets she doesn’t control into complying with technology standards and participating in statewide IT initiatives. For each project, she appoints a contact person from her department to maintain a dialogue with the state agency’s IT staff, which implements the new standards and deploys new systems. “What we try to cultivate here is an attitude of accommodation, of service, of stability,” says Purcell. Assigning a single person to field questions or complaints is a reflection of that ethic.

The liaisons provide another benefit to Purcell by collecting feedback on proposed regulations and project requirements, and reporting implementation snags. “We can’t function” without such input, she says. “It makes whatever product we’re pushing out the door usable and practicable, instead of an isolated product that is solely the result of someone’s imagination.”

At the Mayo Clinic, Cranmer recently created the customer relationship manager position as a single point of contact between his shop and the clinic’s departments. Prior to the new arrangement, many IT staffers interacted with users, but no single person was responsible for collating all the concerns from a department and coordinating a response. Now, with one point person for each department, Cranmer expects service levels to improve. In addition, the customer relationship managers will hold regular meetings with senior IT staff to share information. Cranmer says such exchanges should help his staff identify projects that can serve more than one department and will help him with planning.

Anticipate Issues

Forsythe’s Buchanan decided to designate liaisons from his staff to the company’s business units after an executive complained during an IT steering committee meeting about a problem with Forsythe’s homegrown order management and configuration system. “Our impression was that it works fine,” says Buchanan, so he sent some staff to investigate the complaint. “My feeling is that there are one or two people who have a misperception about what the application does, and that turned into an impression that the system doesn’t work,” he says. Going forward, Buchanan would rather learn about potential problems brewing before his executive colleagues get wind of them, so he’ll charge his new liaisons to sniff out trouble.

In Texas, the 30 webmasters for the state agencies meet monthly with the liaison from Purcell’s office to discuss ongoing projects, such as improvements to, the state’s government portal. The group uses a Listserv to keep in touch between meetings. Thomasville Furniture’s application managers are expected to meet with their business constituents every week or two, and to gather information from department heads and lower-level managers alike. Flynn pulls the application managers together quarterly to translate their feedback into deliverables for the next quarter. Then he takes this agenda to Thomasville’s IT steering committee for approval. The dual-direction communication?top to bottom and across functions?is helping Flynn overcome one of his biggest hurdles: dispelling a perception common in the furniture industry that IT is made of techies with no business savvy.

That battle, like the others detailed in this Special Report, is all too familiar to CIOs in most industries. But CIOs who follow the six best practices described in “The State of the CIO 2003” survey find those challenges surmountable.