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The Title is Information Officer ... Chief Information Officer

John Bostick

Say the name Sean Connery, and virtually everyone who enjoys movies will think of his most famous line, "The name is Bond, James Bond." Ian Fleming's spy novels made the Bond character popular before Connery first played him on-screen in 1962. And five other actors have played Bond during the last 45 years. But it is Connery most of us see in our heads when we hear the famous musical riff from every film's opening sequence. And Connery is the standard against which all other would-be Bonds - perhaps even all other secret-agent characters - are measured. Does the name George Lazenby mean anything to you?

Yet, of the 28 nominations and 12 awards recognizing his acting prowess, none were for his role as James Bond. Not only has he starred in dozens of films other than Bond flicks, he defied the bane of the acting world - typecasting. In fact, he won an Oscar not for playing a super-spy, but for his turn as Jim Malone, the aging, street-weary Irish cop in The Untouchables.

Connery's secret? Transformation. He captured our collective imagination as the dashing British Bond, but he realized the role was ultimately a dead end. He made the tough decision to abandon the old role in his comfort zone at the height of its popularity in order to improve his long-term career prospects. He then used his box office appeal as leverage with the studios to give him the broader roles he knew were critical to his professional survival.

Today's senior IT execs, and those who aspire to move up the ladder, can take a few pointers from Connery.

During the late '90s, IT executives were the stars of many businesses, capturing the imagination of their companies and customers by leading them in new directions for information technology. eCommerce. Web Services. Name a tech trend; the CIO and his senior staff were in the lead. But as the world moved from seeing technology on its own as a strategic advantage, and instead began making technology decisions based on the business value they were supposed to bring, the CIO and senior IT execs went from stars to bit players in their organizations. They were typecast as the tech geeks with no business sense.

New priorities have replaced the corporate IT "space race" of the last century in the minds of C-level executives: compliance, mergers & acquisitions, corporate governance and outsourcing. No longer impressed with IT's nuts and bolts, CEOs, CFOs and COOs are more concerned with IT's cost and its contribution to generating value. With little more to offer than gripes about interoperability and the shortage of IT workers, many CIOs risk losing their seats at the executive table.

Like Connery using Bond as leverage, today's CIOs and other senior IT executives need to branch out from their traditional roles in order to become true Information Officers - the type who understand how technology applies to the financial, operational and competitive sides of the enterprise. Based on my experience of talking everyday to CIOs, IT executives and aspiring IT executives, here are a few suggestions on how to fight the technology typecast:

Business First. Actors call this "sharpening their craft." Business pundits call it "business/IT alignment." What it means is understand the basics of your industry and your organization first. Know your company's customers, suppliers, and competitors. Read broadly and deeply about business, to be perceptive about management, markets, global culture and accelerating change that technology is in large part driving. Know before your executive peers can blink that - - the world is flat - the tail is long - the ocean is blue - and - the implications that the truth can be terribly inconvenient. Insert perceptive IT questions into your company's customer satisfaction surveys and champion the insights. Try to get a seat at board meetings as a participant, advisor, observer or guest. Develop IT buy-in with your executive peers make sure you have a clear IT governance strategy that the CFO or general counsel helped develop. This is the first step toward an IT vision that ties into business objectives, strategies and measurements.

Refocus Your IT Organization Away from Commodity Activities and Toward Business Value. If you want to increase your standing in the enterprise you have to show more than mere competence at what's expected. Here's an example. Ben Stiller gets a lot of work in Hollywood. But he doesn't command Connery money. That's because he's essentially playing one of the three Ben Stiller types in every movie.

CIOs and their organizations should emulate Connery's ability to evolve with the times and changing needs of the "audience." Departmental time management is an excellent example of adapting to dynamic conditions. Time and resources will always be finite. What will change is how those hours and resources are deployed. Identify IT activities that have been commoditized. Some may be critical and require world-class performance. But, they will still be commodities that offer no differentiating value to your company. Treat them as such. Outsource those activities to specialized providers, and then stack internal time and resources against objectives dictated by business strategy.

Remember the definition of an IT commodity will change over time and in response to market conditions. So, stay agile and flexible with staff and budget deployment. But also stay focused on the brainwork instead of the mechanical work and you will provide greater value.

Want to know what practices work best? Keep in touch with your peers, both their careers and their organizations. Outsiders have no political stake in the game and can provide insight and honest feedback.

Measure Results. Much like distribution doesn't measure a film's success--the box-office take does--activity in IT doesn't equal results. Your staff may be busy doing something. But that something may not be moving the business forward.

IT managers focus on activities. CIOs and senior IT executives must focus on leadership, goals and results. Tie your department's results to business objectives anchored by the business' front-line results. For example, if the business missed its numbers for the quarter, you should consider IT's role in that deficit and how IT can help put revenue back on track. Keep measurements simple and keep them aligned with executive priorities and operational plans. Measure IT in a business context rather than an IT-focused one and you will increase your prestige with other executives.

Nurture and Grow Business and IT Strategy Together. Some of the actors who followed Connery followed his successful strategy and parlayed a stint as 007 into more lucrative work. Some did not. You should expect the same experience with your IT staff. As you transform your role in the business, it is important that your people follow that path as well. Encourage them to pursue the same kind of new education and awareness you are. And do what you can to provide growth opportunities for them. After all, you are a team, and you will only go as far as the team can take you.

For example, you can provide your team members with an "MBA career roadmap" instead of an IT-centric employee development plan. Get their buy-in that their careers have to be aligned with the business and not just tethered to IT. The more they understand how business works, the better prepared they'll be to make valuable contributions to the organization.

And accept that not all of the team will follow this path. Some will--and should--remain focused on the nuts and bolts of IT. In fact, it is your job as a leader to help individuals discover when this role fits and what value it delivers.

The rapid pace of change in technology and the dynamic nature of global business put CIOs and senior IT execs of all kinds, from mid-size company to major corporation at risk of being typecast as a one-role actor. If you aspire to the executive suite, you need to ask yourself: Am I Connery? Or am I Lazenby? Bond fans know what I mean.


About the Author
John Bostick is president and CEO of dbaDIRECT, which provides data infrastructure management services to Fortune 1000 and Private 500 firms including SC Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Timberland, Hanesbrands, Warner Brothers, Duke Energy and Old National Bank. He can be reached at john.bostick@dbadirect.com.

Copyright 2007 Auerbach Publications.