The smartest CIOs

Heads of IT used to be sidelined as boffins. Now the top-flight exponents combine tech knowhow with business acumen. Mark Vernon profiles four of the best.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The role of the CIO in modern business is an ever-changing and increasingly complex one. In the days of mainframes and green screens, it was a senior technical job, necessary simply because no-one else at that level of seniority could understand what the technology was about. Then, the bursting of the dot.com bubble gave flashy technology such a bad name that the role morphed again. The cry went up for people who were not so enamoured of the latest techie fashions that they would follow them blindly but who would address real business needs through the studied application of IT knowhow.

Today's best CIOs offer a synthesis of two skills: they combine an understanding of technology and how it can facilitate the pursuit of profit. Organisations - in both the public and private sectors - need business-minded CIOs.

And CIOs needs to be clear about the added value they bring to the board - their IT savvy. The broad aim is to match the direction of travel within the IT industry with the direction the organisation wants to go in. IT is still largely alien to many business people; they understand that it matters, but few really understand what it can do. The CIO should be someone who can identify and clarify these big issues and put them powerfully across at the most senior level.

What the board expects from its IT function has changed dramatically too. Today's executives expect CIOs to move beyond concerns about cost, reliability and quality to help grow their organisations, explains Marcus Blosch, vice president and research director at Gartner EXP. 'Last year saw the beginning of a transformation that is intensifying in 2006,' he says.

For example, many companies are seeking to exploit IT to help them globalise. This is partly about developing facilities such as shared service centres and driving best practice across operations. However, the smart CIO ensures that this is not just a matter of replicating in local offices what has always happened in the head office. Rather, the aim should be to discover the best ways of doing things on the ground first, and then to globalise them.

Another big issue this year is security. IT is moving in the direction of more open networks, with wireless technology and an in- crease in the range of devices that can connect to the network. Along with the opportunities it brings, this raises major concerns. The challenge of the CIO is to convey the right sense of risk to senior colleagues: security must be taken seriously, but it must not become a reason to take fright. At the board level, no-one else can address this issue with the clarity and context it requires.

The current trend for benchmarking IT spend is something else CIOs must be able to steer their less technologically adept colleagues through. This is the tendency to assess your IT budget by comparing it with that of other organisations. However, what an organisation needs to spend on IT is intimately connected to the nature of what it does, so straight comparisons can be misleading. What is needed is a CIO who understands the operational and commercial impact of balance-sheet figures.

So what qualities make for a top-flight new-generation CIO? What issues do they struggle with, and what do their colleagues want from them? MT spoke to four outstanding specimens of the breed to find out.

JIM PRESTON - BT RETAIL

Closing the gap between IT systems and customer service could sum up the mission of Jim Preston, deputy CIO and head of group business engagement at BT Retail. He has worked for BT or its subsidiaries for his whole career and took up his present position in the summer of 2004. He's now responsible for the kind of service that tens of millions of consumer and business customers experience.

The role is particularly pressing as BT moves from being a retail communications provider via a single device - the telephone - to becoming an IT services organisation that offers a spread of services on a range of devices to a wide array of customers. What those customers want, though, is a single relationship with their provider, regardless of whether they are ordering video-on-demand or a new 'fusion' phone (a clever gadget that doubles as a mobile out of doors and a landline at home).

Being a CIO, as opposed to an IT manager, requires Preston to think horizontally across the business rather than vertically into a specialist activity.

'When you are responsible for a particular function, you are essentially an executor. When you are a CIO, you are shaping the business as a whole.

It is about exploiting networks to transform the business and deliver a seamless customer experience,' he says.

'Our strategy depends on IT for the rate at which we can change and the quality of the service we can deliver,' he continues. 'The CIO's role is to understand the tools and the business - both of which are changing - as deeply as possible.'

ROBIN JOHNSON - DELL EMEA

'Marks & Spencer used to have this term "probing",' says Robin Johnson, vice president of IT for Dell EMEA, who began his professional life in retail. 'Probing' was asking why, when, what - and pushing for the detail.

'They taught you to ensure that you understood the matter in hand. I am a product of that training.'

He also spent time working in non-IT consultancy. So when he came back into IT, he was focused on the challenge of bringing his business mindset with him. 'People do not want more IT,' he says. 'They want more of what they need. So my role is about connecting with the business and taking IT out to where it can be used.'

For example, Dell is implementing a new technology in its customer service operation to facilitate support. 'It will enable agents to do more for customers by fixing problems online,' explains Johnson. The technology was originally designed for product development, but Johnson realised it could be put to good use in the support function too.

For an online operation like Dell, the IT system is the business process.

Gone are the days when there was effectively a gap between IT and process, and technology was thought of as essentially automating what had previously been done on paper. So senior IT management must also be good at business process re-engineering.

And this ability to innovate at the IT level is becoming more crucial at Dell. An online business model that once gave it market edge is now widely imitated. Johnson, though, is sanguine. 'You are going to see big changes in the way we interact with our customers,' he says. 'It is tough, but we will push further ahead.'

DENISE PLUMPTON - HIGHWAYS AGENCY AND CORPORATE IT FORUM

IT is for the business to use, not to be gloried in for its own sake.

So says Denise Plumpton, director of information at the Highways Agency and chair of the Corporate IT Forum, a membership-based organisation for people in corporate IT to share best practice.

She came into IT more by accident than design. 'I was working in the area of operations and particularly on improvements in business processes, and that involved using computers,' she explains. 'The time came to look for new challenges and IT was obviously growing fast.'

Although not having a very deep technical background, Plumpton knows how to ask the difficult questions of IT.

'I was always interested in IT for the business' sake, doing all those good things like driving efficiency, developing new services and entering new markets.'

Plumpton's business background has served her well in various CIO roles.

'It's about having credibility,' she says. 'You need to be able to express the issues to the MD or CEO in a language they understand, even if they understand little or nothing about IT.'

She has seen too many companies come unstuck because they did not have a senior IT person capable of doing this: long gone are the days when it could be left to an IT-illiterate CFO.

'I think the CIO does have to work a bit harder at communicating to senior colleagues,' she adds. The problem is that IT rarely makes a direct impact on the bottom line, so the CIO is effectively selling a promise. 'You must get the operational and sales guys on your side and show you are a commercial heavyweight too,' she says.

DAVID ROWLING - PUNCH TAVERNS

David Rowling, CIO of Punch Taverns, finds himself in the rare position of being able to say that an IT investment impressed not only directors but shareholders too. The company has been in acquisitive mode in recent years. When it bought the Pubmaster Estate, part of the opportunity was the acquisition of properties that had suffered previously from years of under-investment.

Rowling was tasked to show, property by property, just what return the investment brought - something that a management information system enabled him to do. It was so impressive that the company was able to borrow more money to engage in more acquisitions.

'As a CIO, you are part of the senior team, so you have to be comfortable talking to senior colleagues about business strategy and how IT supports that,' says Rowling, who has worked in various IT capacities all his career.

'You are using technology to change the business in some way.' When it comes to measuring business performance, this can be challenging to IT people, who are often not used to being driven by performance themselves, he adds.

Rowling is particularly interested in consumer IT - that is, the messaging and web-video technology so familiar to teenagers. 'There is a lot of very cheap multimedia technology around now that corporates are just not using,' he points out. 'A big question for me is: how can we use it to further our business?'

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