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The challenge of being a nontechie CIO

The challenge of being a nontechie CIO

Spotlight On: C. Lee Jones, vice president of information management and technology for Abbott Laboratories Inc.'s pharmaceutical products division, Abbott Park, Ill.

Line of Business: Pharmaceutical

Bio: An MBA who has managed manufacturing, R&D, clinical research and marketing units in pharmaceuticals; became VP of information management and IT for Abbott's pharmaceutical division in 1996 after working in the business side for six years Challenges: Helping business execs understand the ways technology will affect them CIO: What challenges did you face coming into the IS leadership role with a business rather than an IS background? Jones: Some IS managers were hostile. They'd ask, "How do you know what needs to be done?" I'd say, "If I need to become an expert in technology, then I must have the wrong people in my organisation.... I need you to tell me what we need to do." They believed I was brought in to do a hatchet job on IS. There were a fair number of people who elected to change jobs.

CIO: How did you get past that initial ill will? Jones: I met with the IS staff in groups of 8 to 10 people and I asked their opinions: How would they change things if given the chance? They knew I had been successful in other areas of Abbott so they began to open up. I also brought in people from the outside to talk with them-gurus, consultants and analysts. When they heard the outside opinions, they saw that the business arguments for change and the problems with the status quo were too strong to fight.

CIO: What do you bring to the equation then? Jones: I bring the ability to coalesce all that inside and outside information, build support for a plan and match it to the perspective of the client-because I used to be a client. Like any support organisation, IS tends to think of itself as a supportive follower of the business. That's true, but it creates a passive mentality. IS should listen to the business, but it should also help the business shape strategy. For example, our clinical research people have struggled with sharing data because it has always meant building private, proprietary solutions. We said, "Don't stop thinking about the possibilities. We can create Internet-browser-based solutions to work around the problems." Unfortunately, in many companies it's difficult for IS to take on a leadership role. Business schools are still teaching students that IS is a cost to be controlled, otherwise it will eat you alive. When IS tries to push solutions in that kind of environment, it often gets beaten down.

CIO: What advice do you offer CIOs who have felt beaten down? Jones: Don't give up trying to communicate with the business. If someone says e-commerce is a waste of money, for example, I won't leave it at that because nothing will change. If I work to create a relationship and keep passing snippets of information about how our competitors are using e-commerce, then I'm keeping the door open.

We also ask them what they think it will take for IS to deliver a solution.

They may dump on IS, but they're glad that someone asked their opinion. You get psychological buy-in from that. It's a variation of what a salesperson says out in the field: "What's it going to take to get your business?" CIO: Is there a project that has benefited from your experience as a client? Jones: Our enterprise document management strategy. Different client groups wanted independent systems because no one wanted to change their own processes.

We did focus group sessions and pilot projects to show that we needed to create common business processes before we could start implementing technology. Soon, the clients started championing the common processes. It wasn't revolutionary; it just wasn't forced conscription to the standards.

-Christopher Koch

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