Surviving as a CIO requires the right mix of technology and people skills, but mostly it requires the ability to communicate.
Mitsubishi Trucks Australia Finance and IT manager Jeff de Ridder has customers who know almost as much about computer systems as he does, and customers who know - and indeed want to know - very little.
He has customers that are the largest automotive groups in Australia, with 30 or 40 highly IT literate employees who spend their days at the computer and have done so since the days of the mainframe. He also has one-man-operation customers in remote locations like Lightning Ridge who might sell three or four trucks a year plus some spare parts, and who might or might not turn the modem on when they're passing - that is, if they have a modem. And all those customers, big and small, sophisticated and unsophisticated, play an equally important role in determining whether the product de Ridder delivers becomes a national and/or international product.
For de Ridder, recognising and managing the gross variations in the IT sophistication, competency and requirements of his end users is one of the biggest calls of his job. Customers without high-level IT skills are easily scared, he says, and it is vital to recognise their competency and real requirements, and not to push too much technology - especially unnecessary technology - at them too soon.
"We don't challenge the IT department enough from the point of view of whether the business really requires a particular solution," he says. "And I'll put anything in: I've got virtual phones with all sorts of integration. But it's got to be useful and it's got to be really needed."
Another skill de Ridder and most other CIOs need is the kind of salesmanship that can get reluctant users to adopt new solutions. For instance De Ridder is currently implementing a new Web-based sales reporting system designed to encourage field staff to provide useful transactional data to the business, but he knows that unless he can convince the sales force there are benefits in it for them, the system is likely to become shelfware. He has already begun that sales pitch by trying to convince users the system will give them information at their fingertips that will allow them to be better at their job, because ultimately, he says, that is the point of differentiation.
"There are not many unique selling points in the world any more. It's a matter of what you've done before and how you can do it better to make it easier for the end user," de Ridder says. "And they've got to buy in on it, so you take the time to sit down with them. If you can get them buying in at that level, then you can grow it from there. If you just give it to them, it will sit there and be a waste of money, time and effort, because nobody will buy into it."
Sitting down with customers is something CIOs have gained a lot of practice at over the years. Effectively communicating with those customers is as important as effectively communicating with the board. In fact, in CIO's State of the CIO survey, effective communication, at 79 per cent, was the skill CIOs nominated as most important of all to their success. Understanding of business processes and operations came next, at 60 per cent, closely followed by strategic thinking and planning, at 56 per cent. Traditional "techie" skills are viewed as largely irrelevant - with technical proficiency rating just 11 per cent.
Above all, as CIOs take on more of the responsibility for shaping broad strategic goals, their ability to communicate their reasons for fostering or eschewing various technologies, and their ability to argue against unrealistic demands and expectations from end users and board members alike, assume growing importance.
"The CIO needs to be a valued member of the executive team and that really only comes from being not only a good communicator who avoids technical jargon but also a convincing and responsive team player who has the ability to understand and translate the business needs of an organisation into effective and timely solutions," says Dr Ralph Hanson, director of IS for the Children's Hospital, Westmead, in western Sydney.
"This is critical if a CIO is to build up trust rather than be perceived as a 'trench coat techo' who has a solution for everything at a price. They need to have their feet firmly planted in reality. In doing so they need to be strong leaders who can drive change and take the business users forward while getting the IT staff to understand the context of what they are required to deliver."
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