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Career challenges facing the modern CIO

Do you consider yourself a modern-day CIO--and are you ready for the challenges heading your way? Find out how to keep your non-tech skills strong enough that you don't fall behind the curve.

By Cooper Smith

In recent years, the wave of technology investing by major corporations has slowed to a trickle, which means that CIOs and senior technology managers have to fight harder than ever for gains and respectability among corporate management. Although tech spending has decreased, the CIO's role is pivotal to the continued economic survival of most corporations.

Many economists now view technology investments as unwise until a competitive advantage can be proven. This is a reasonable opinion given the excesses of the high-tech "build out" over the last 20 years.

A history lesson
Among some prominent economists, the current economic climate is akin to the end of the railroad boom of the 1870s and 1880s, when the Industrial Revolution reached its peak. This was when the first modern, large-scale corporate identities were born. Not only were many resources at the disposal of industrialists because of modern machinery, but, because of advancements in communication, worldwide demand for these resources and for products made from them was like nothing ever before known. In their day, railroads were considered the ultimate in technology.

Both individuals and corporations invested heavily in the railroad mania. However, there came a point at which even Standard Oil found it cost prohibitive to maintain its own railroad—when the costs of outside freight hauling dropped dramatically after 1876. In fact, the period between 1876 to1890 was one of dramatic price deflation and economic stagnation.

In other words, people were willing to invest heavily in technology when they knew they could gain an immediate, if not lasting, competitive advantage that they could quantify. In the 1950s, only a handful of very large companies could afford to lease an IBM mainframe, let alone know how to make good use of it. But, once they did, the advantages were obvious, encouraging competitors to either find ways of accessing new technologies or cease to exist. The idea was that simply having access to technology, almost on any scale, meant that somehow you were ahead. This has been the major force behind the capital expansion in technology for the last 50 years. But now, just about anybody who wants technology has it. Since you're not really ahead of anybody anymore, then, the question is, why more technology?

At first, this might not sound like good news to CIOs or to senior technology managers. Basically, when a new idea catches on in the business world, people run with it as far as it will go. Then, if history tells us anything, the gravy train stops and so does the investment. However, even though the frenetic pace has slowed to a trickle, the technology train is still a valuable working piece of machinery that hasn't gone anywhere. It still has to be managed, leveraged, and positioned to take any organization where it needs to go. In other words, anticipation gives way to consolidation.

In today's open environment, almost everybody has access to the same technology, and IT as a whole is simply another cost of doing business. But let's face it, what modern CEO, COO, or board of investors would see their monthly electric bill as an investment? However, let's see them do business without electricity.

The challenge for you as the CIO is ensuring that your role stays vital to the growth of your organization and that you don't become an overpaid "electrician."

There are exceptions, of course—companies and organizations that will continue to make a profit from being on the cutting edge, having something that everyone wants but no one else has. These will be the exceptions and will still constantly have to redefine their own rules and ways of doing business. But the world of "shrink-wrap" riches or even million-dollar projects to build the ultimate inventory system from scratch is just about gone.

Also gone is the luxury that some CIOs had in the past—setting up a nice comfort zone as a techie as well as a manager. If you're the one who understands just how technology works, you can easily have sway over a nontechnical board of directors or even a CEO. But, since just about everybody uses computers, there's a lot less mystery. Today's IT professionals can't just manage technology; they must really learn how to manage an organization, and, sometimes, a quite sizable one.

Becoming a modern CIO
Here's my advice to the modern technology professional.

Get an MBA or equivalent
If you're going to feel comfortable in the world of the heavyweights, you have to think like one. If possible, take the time to affiliate yourself with one of the top 10 business schools, preferably through an executive MBA program if you or your company can afford it. Getting into a program is not as hard you might think. These aren't full-time programs training young minds between 22 and 27 on how to move forward in their careers. These are programs made especially for seasoned professionals in the middle of their careers. They can prove an exceptional boost in confidence and provide both theoretical and practical knowledge about the marketplace for your business.

Network extensively with other CIOs/CTOs
The only way to do business is with other business people. You can't do business in a vacuum. Your fellow CIOS and high-level technology managers are your eyes and ears across the globe. Use them, stay in almost daily touch with as many as you can, and listen to everyone.

Of course, a lot of the information on the latest rollouts, vendors, and Wall Street predictions on technology stocks may not be very helpful. But you never know when a bit of information can help move your whole organization into a better strategic position in your marketplace and, possibly, even help you pick up some business.

Decide what's "open" and what's "proprietary"
A good deal of your budget will go to maintenance and support, but you don't have to forget what technology is really all about—innovation. If you can identify any technology, process, or procedure that will be readily profitable to your organization, by either selling it outright, reducing significant costs, or adding to overall efficiency of the entire organization, jump on it. True, in some organizations you might as well be searching for the Holy Grail. But, regardless of whether you're engaged in a low-tech technology environment or you're the CIO of Lucent Technologies, never stop trying.

Don't just manage a budget—show a profit
CEOs, COOs, CFOs, division managers, and marketing and sales departments are usually given forecasts of how much profit/sales/savings their department is expected to produce for a given quarter or year. Make sure you do the same. Once you take responsibility for real profit and loss, you'll be surprised how easy it is to stay involved in day-to-day operations. Become a profit center, if you can. In business, success is measured in dollars and cents.

Consolidate your team
As a management leader, you have the power to build your own corporate culture, so use this power wisely. It used to be very easy for technology departments to set up territories and turfs and fight over which operating system was best. This is too costly in today's environment.

The values you adopt for yourself should be the values of all those who work for you, at least, when they're at work. That means they should also take the previous four suggestions to heart no matter what their level. It never hurts to have as many "professional" professionals working for you as possible.

Change Tech Solutions is a division of the Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute. For more information on both, visit www.harriskern.com.

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