For politicians, the key to success is winning the hearts and minds of the voters. Former US President Ronald Reagan was particularly adept at this, using his skills as "The Great Communicator" to get his message across and win the electorate over to his way of thinking. CIOs are not unlike political leaders in that their success depends largely on winning the hearts and minds of users and customers. Those CIOs who take communication seriously are likely to have an easier road to success.
Ken Fitzpatrick is one of those guys. He understands the value of communications, and he has applied that knowledge to help build success in his role as Director, Information Services for steel manufacturer WGI Westman Group. And perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise, but Fitzpatrick is also a politician.
"One thing that really got me focusing on communication was my first stint as a city councillor for the City of Brandon (Manitoba, Canada). It helped me understand the importance of communication," he said. "I have really tried to get information out to the residents of my ward any and every way possible. I've tried to use this same philosophy at my 'paying' job in IT management as well, and in my new position as President of the Keystone Centre, a Brandon-based convention and recreation centre."
When Fitzpatrick started with WGI in 2000, he admits that communication was not at the top of his priority list. The first order of business was to get some things done - to prove to the organization that IT could provide efficiencies and improve the company's operations. At the time, WGI made only very modest use of technology, and enjoyed few of its benefits. In the years since, the company has embraced technology and used it as an enabler, at the inevitable cost of becoming more dependent on it. In the midst of this transition, Fitzpatrick turned his attention to the role of communications in furthering his department's objectives and stature within the organization.
"Communications really came to the forefront a few years after I joined WGI. In part it was due to my involvement with the CIO Executive Council and the things I was hearing from other CIOs about improving IT's effectiveness within the organization," he said.
"With technology playing a larger role in all of our organizations, communications is becoming a lot more important and CIOs need to take a leadership role in this area. In particular, we need to make sure that we're telling people what we're doing for them. This is important even in a traditional business like ours."
WGI Goes Lean
Another factor that led to Fitzpatrick's focus on communications - perhaps the biggest of all - was his involvement with 'lean' manufacturing. Lean is a process management philosophy, largely based on the Toyota Production System, which focuses on the reduction of seven key areas of waste, as well as on the improvement of flow.
When the Canadian dollar started rising in the early 2000s, manufacturers began to worry that if the trend continued, their companies wouldn't be able to compete. This prompted many firms to start adopting lean techniques.
"At the time, people were coming to the technology department and saying, 'We've got a problem here. Can you write something for us to fix it?'" said Fitzpatrick. "But it was clear to me that you can't write a system to fix a process problem. All you're going to do is end up with a computerized problem."
Recognizing that he had to address process problems at their root, Fitzpatrick started to research lean manufacturing, visiting some businesses in the area that were already doing it. He soon became a strong proponent of the approach, and he eventually became the company's representative in a lean consortium that was formed by several businesses in Winnipeg and Brandon.
"That's when the light really went on for me around communications," he said. "When you implement lean, you need the employees to come forward and tell you how processes can be made simpler. If you don't have their buy-in, they'll eventually go back to the way they were doing things before. So you really have to have their trust, and good two-way communications is essential."
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