Dennis Benner left Fluor, the world's largest engineering and construction company, last year after serving as CIO for more than five years. Now an executive vice president at Autobytel.com in Irvine, California, Benner oversees corporate strategy and international partnerships for the online automobile marketplace. He reflects on the job of CIO, the old-economy/dotcom dichotomy and the importance of stuff.
CIO: What does it take to succeed as a CIO?
Benner: First, CIOs need to be able to take both a big-picture and small-picture outlook at the same time. They need to ask: How are we using IT to improve the overall competitiveness of the enterprise, and how are we using it to get costs down this quarter? Second, CIOs have to have a systemic view - to recognize how what they do affects the corporation. CIOs have to be sensitive to the fact that solving a problem in area A may create a bigger problem in area B. Third, successful CIOs have to listen carefully, with the whole system in mind, and learn to deal with conflicting objectives and make tradeoffs.
CIO: What happens when communication among departments breaks down?
Benner: When a company is spending significant money in IT investments, the relationships between a CIO and other executives can be less than tranquil. But that's true for any executive - finance, sales, marketing, strategic management, manufacturing - who's doing something challenging. When I hear IT people talk about how tough life is and how they aren't fully appreciated, I say, "Get over it."
CIO: How should CIOs communicate with other executives?
Benner: CIOs should focus on listening. Also, they should rarely use technical terminology. Effective CIOs use analogies, metaphors, stories and examples. The CIO has to speak two languages. When you're dealing with your IT staff, you want to use the appropriate language dealing with compilers, macros and so forth. But when you're dealing with other executives, you want to use words like stuff. What stuff conveys is that it's not important for the non-IT executive to worry about particular details behind the word.
CIO: What's the difference between working for a traditional company and a dotcom?
Benner: I think it's time to get past the idea of old economy/new economy. Why do we call this e-business? When we do business on the telephone, we don't call it t-business. When we do it face-to-face, we don't call it F2F business. We should just call it business. Both Fluor and Autobytel.com realize the inherent advantages and pitfalls of IT. By this time, both have it pretty well-woven into the fiber of their companies.