From Tactical to Strategic: Understanding Industry is Key

As most of you know from first hand experience the CIO’s job is changing; perhaps more rapidly and more radically than any other executive’s job … ever. Like the PC, which spawned a revolution in the way the world works and communicates, the technology supporting businesses the world over has dramatically transformed the way companies work and communicate. At the helm of this change is the CIO.

The “old timers” remember when running IT was all about interconnectivity and bandwidth, and the limits the lack of these two things imposed on IT’s ability to impact business much beyond process and productivity improvements. Today, of course, much has changed.

While most of these infrastructure layers are still in place (nothing in IT really ever goes away) there are yet again many more newer layers stacked on top of the old. But these newer layers, with a little cajoling and some elbow grease on the part of IT, do interact and play well together. This has enabled IT to support the business in new, truly innovative ways by connecting with and connecting to customers, suppliers, partners and vendors in ways never before imagined.

But, like all new and disruptive changes, these take time and often happen in fits and starts. IT today, and therefore the CIO, are in the midst of this change trying to orchestrate a bevy of often conflicting technologies while balancing the business metrics of cost and risk. If this is not enough, today’s most successful CIOs understand that IT is not longer about IT, it is about business.

To be successful, therefore, today’s CIOs must be chameleons. They must, on the one hand, be technologically savvy so they know the art of the possible, while, on the other, they must be deeply knowledgeable about the industry in which they find themselves if they are to have impact as innovators—something many businesses are demanding of them today.

To get a better understanding of these changes and where we are today on the timeline, CIOUpdate is continuing its series of Q&As with CIOs that are doing their best to juggle all of these changes and still have a positive impact as innovators and businesspeople, not just technologists.

In the beginning of April, I got Century Insurance CIO Doug Bond on the phone to talk about all of this and how, as the CIO of $260M specialty lines insurance carrier in the midst of merger, he is coping. What I found out wasn’t so much surprising as enlightening.

At the time of his hiring in 2005, Bond had been a consulting at Century on their business intelligence initiatives. He liked the people he came into contact and liked management’s view of the role technology could play in expanding their business. When it came time to sit down and talk, Bond made sure they understood two things: having worked in the industry since the 1980s he knew a lot about the business and he was not at all interested in being an order taker.

They agreed. They were looking for someone just like him. Someone who could take a “seat at the table” (to use an overworked expression) and participate in the strategic business decisions that had to made if the company was to continue growing. Bond was able to do this because, early in his career, he picked an industry to work in as an IT professional. Not the other way around. Knowledge of technology was table stakes. Knowing the insurance industry is what made the difference and positioned Bond to gain equal status as a C-suite executive.

“(Your knowledge) has to industry-specific,” said Bond. “It’s not just business in general. I think one of the things that has benefited me here is being able to understand the industry … to the point that (the powers that be) recognize you know what you are talking about and involve you in those discussions.

“I’ve been with a lot of IT when I was doing consulting where that wasn’t the case. And I think to a large extent, when you have those executive staff meetings and if you’re just sitting there and absorbing and listening, those are the kind of things that lead to what you read a lot about today where the CIO is reporting to the CFO. You’re kind of minimalized in terms of ‘Well, if you don’t really understand the business you can’t really help us in terms constructing strategy and constructing solutions that are going to make us better.'”