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Career Advice: The CIO Role in China

Career Advice: The CIO Role in China

Today, having experience in China is a bonus. Tomorrow, it may become a necessity as China grows more and more central to the strategies of multinational corporations, both as supplier and customer

Don't see yourself living in Shanghai? You'll be dealing with Chinese IT in some form or another in the future, be it through outsourcing, working with suppliers or serving customers. Even if you don't spend a week every month in a Beijing hotel as does Bandrowczak, some direct knowledge of China increasingly will be critical to your career prospects.

But for all the talk about the promise of China and its growing importance to Western corporations, the IT environment there remains a challenging one. CIOs heading to China for the first time, either out of opportunity or necessity, should understand the obstacles before they go.

"Managing IT in China isn't seamless at all," says Matt Brennan, interim CIO for Asimco, a $US400 million auto parts distributor based in Beijing. "You have to be prepared for some real challenges. But it can be very satisfying if you persevere."

Where IT Is Still a Service

One of the things CIOs learn about China early on is that while youth, excellent education and enthusiasm abound, experience does not. For Charlie Peters, who has overseen IT and e-business efforts in China for 15 years as senior executive vice president for Emerson, a $US17.5 billion electronics manufacturer, that's part of the thrill. "The drive of the people is unparalleled in the business world, yet their knowledge of even basic business approaches is nonexistent," Peters says. "So it's fulfilling to teach and experience the progress they make."

To help meld local enthusiasm with global experience, Bandrowczak has created an IT management team made up of half U.S. professionals and half Chinese, which mirrors the makeup of Lenovo's executive team. The Western managers bring understanding of global and enterprise IT management principles; the Chinese managers bring knowledge of local management mores. The only problem Bandrowczak foresees is that those skills he's imparting are increasing in value in the local market. "You don't find many companies building data centres and housing all technology and enterprise services out of China right now like we're trying to do," he says. "But in the future, within the next year, we'll have a retention problem."

Outside of the technology industry, it's already difficult to find IT help, partly because Chinese companies don't often place a high strategic value on IT. "In the U.S. it may be difficult to attract top talent to an internal IT department, but it's not impossible," says Charles Wan, who was born in Chongqing, China, but spent 15 years going to school and working in IT in the United States and became an American citizen before being tapped by Midea, a $US5 billion appliance manufacturer based in Shenzhen, as its first strategic CIO. "In China, to work for the internal IT department is considered a service job. The core business is not IT. They'd rather work for a vendor." It's not just an image thing, says Wan; the high-tech companies pay twice as much. "I was constantly telling my CFO, these people are underpaid," says Wan. "We need more money to get people here and get them motivated."

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