CIOs need to build a business-savvy bench

Here's a look at how three CIOs are cultivating a business-focused outlook among the up-and-coming IT leaders who report to them.

Douglas Blackwell,Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey Identify IT Pros With Atypical Skills

Since I report directly to the CEO, I get information at the most senior level of the company regarding our business strategy, our customer experience, and the vision and goals of the organization. I disseminate that information down to my direct reports, who also have very close contact with managers in all divisions, whether sales, service or healthcare management.

The immediate contact that my direct reports have with business leaders is both formal and casual. When I joined the company, I looked at creating an organization that would facilitate close working relationships between IT and the business divisions. We created a group called Business Solutions. Within that group, we created an IT role called the divisional information leader. This person sits on the staffs of my peers throughout the organization.

When I researched the attributes we needed for the newly created roles, I found that many of the same attributes that salespeople have would be a good fit. We needed "challengers"--people with the ability to push back and seek out the true business requirements. These are not typical skills for IT professionals.

Paul Brady, Arbella Insurance Group Focus on Communication, Execution

Our IT group has been on a journey to becoming a trusted business partner. Aligning with the business starts with solid communication, planning at the executive level and the involvement of direct reports.

Each February, I get together with the other executives for a multiday business strategy session, in which we contemplate where the company would like to be in five or 10 years. In June, we have another multiday meeting to discuss major business objectives and goals in the shorter-term--about three years out--and the technology needed to achieve these goals. In September, we build the plan for the following year, which includes very detailed funding and resource requirements. Everything cascades down to my direct reports: They are involved in the preparations for those meetings, and they work with their business counterparts to ensure that the sessions achieve the maximum value.

A few years ago, IT was an underperforming service organization. By having ongoing communication and collaboration with the business, IT is more visible and transparent. Today, when the business has a problem, they engage with us early.

John Dick, Towers Watson Facilitate Collaboration; Target Market Value

We have IT leaders aligned with each of our four business segments. Those leaders have ongoing dialogue about the needs of our associates and customers, and about how to best leverage our technology standards. A couple of times a year we conduct more formal planning sessions, where we work with each of the lines of business to anticipate their technology needs. We have a portfolio of businesses, with some units that are more mature and focused on efficiency and others that are more innovative, so these discussions help us identify opportunities to leverage technology to other units or across the enterprise.

Systems development is directed at the line-of-business level, which ensures that we are close to our customers and to the market. It's also valuable for my team to bring these groups together regularly to share ideas about the effective use of technology.

It's important that IT leaders and employees understand how their work relates to the company's success. Rather than IT having separate goals, we measure our success by the business goals of the company. An example is the revenue growth or expense reduction we achieve through an initiative or proof-of-concept. Ultimately, our contribution to the market value of the company guides our technology investments on a quarter-to-quarter and year-to-year basis.


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