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Interview: Shop Talk

Interview: Shop Talk

Q: As the CIO of a cooperative organisation, collaboration must be an important part of your job. How do you handle it?A: I have to understand all of the relationships among the organisations that I deal with-how those organisations work and what they do. A major project of mine right now is convergent billing. There are three cooperative billing agencies (besides ours) that also provide billing services to the telecommunications cooperatives we support. Our members can go anywhere they want for billing services, so I have to show them why it's to their benefit to use our services. I have to offer cost savings and satisfy the unique billing requirements of cooperative members such as bundled billing for long distance and wireless, for example, or separate billing for each service they offer.

That means creating individual billing solutions for every one of our members.

Q: So in effect you need to collaborate with 900 constituents. How difficult is that?A: There are a lot of political issues involved. The three different billing agencies have three different slants on billing.

Q: How do you avoid working at cross purposes?A: One diplomatic thing I do is use a host of different consultants. They enable me to talk to the members from a different angle; it's not us against them. It's easier to accept change when it's recommended by an independent party. For example, we have a data warehousing project we're working on that will serve the membership. Instead of me sitting here and outlining exactly what we're going to do, I hired a consultant to meet with cooperative members and internal staff to see what they wanted from a data warehouse. The consultant came up with a prioritised list of target items and recommended an implementation schedule. This approach diffuses the politics and heightens the buy-in.

Q: How has deregulation in the telecommunications and utilities industries affected your job?A: Deregulation is driving us to offer diversified services to our cooperative members, such as Internet access, broadband wireless and wireless radio. The problem is that many executives in our member companies don't yet have a competitive mind-set because they have existed in a regulated environment for so long. They don't know how to treat competition and how to effectively service and grow a business. A big part of my job is to provide our cooperative members with services so that they can go out and sell in a competitive world.

So I try to leverage economies of scale to create services for them-whether it's application development or consulting-at lower prices than they can get by acting alone.

Q: Where does the Internet come in?

A: E-commerce is becoming a bigger issue, even though a lot of the rural communities that our member companies serve have no Internet access yet. One of the things we are examining is posting bills and billing information on the Internet. We're trying to show them that if they want to be in [the telecom and utilities] businesses now and in the future, it's necessary to offer services that don't require customers to pick up a phone whenever they have questions.

Q: How do you measure your success in the job?A: I take into account how the cooperatives are doing. If I do my job right, their businesses will grow.

SPOTLIGHT ON: Jim Gibbons, vice president of IT and CIO, National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), Herndon, VirginiaLine of Business: A not-for-profit organisation that provides telecommunications and IS services to member rural phone companies and utilitiesBio: Has been with NRTC for five years; previously director of project management for NetExpress, a now-defunct international telecommunications companyChallenges: Providing customised services to 900 member companies

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