Roadblock: the Management Committee

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-06-08 Print this article Print

When the management committee blocks a chief information officer from the executive suite

The Obstacle

Most strategic-thinking chief information officers feel they should report directly to the chief executive officer. Information technology, they argue, is just as critical to the corporation's success as finance or operations. But many organizations, including most pharmaceutical makers, put the CIO a level or two down from the executives who report directly to the CEO. So it's usually up to technology project leaders wanting a seat at the CEO's table to convince management committee members that they belong. What steps should they take?

The Response:

Find the strategic levers. Many factors in a corporation's—and technology leader's—success revolve around how well a company uses information. While the pharmaceutical industry traditionally doesn't place strategic importance on information systems, Merck CIO Chris Scalet is convinced I.T. can make strategic contributions. "I don't differentiate whether I.T. can make a strategic difference at Merck any differently than any other company," he says. "We have the same opportunities to be a key lever in our industry as in any other industry." He sees opportunities to improve operational efficiency, customer relationships, supply chain management and key drug development processes such as clinical testing.

Act the part. The type of leader more likely to win a CEO's heart should be more CEO-like—a big-picture, strategic thinker. That's more or less the way Scalet describes himself. Although he earned an undergraduate degree in operations research and worked as a programmer early in his career, "the business aspects are the area I understand most," Scalet says. "I'm not a technician. I concentrate on trying to figure out how I.T. can shape the business and rethink how business is being done by the corporation." Scalet reports to Merck's executive committee through Richard T. Clark, president of Merck's manufacturing division. But Bernard Abramson, who retired as divisional CIO for Merck U.S. Human Health at the end of last year, says Scalet has the right qualities to raise the profile of information technology within Merck.

Speak the part. A CIO, project leader or other technologist who can speak to the CEO in his or her language will be heard. Most information technology professionals have been conditioned by their training and experience to be "analytic and pessimistic," says Abramson. "We need deterministic rules for every scenario. We cannot tolerate an 'if-then' without an 'else.'" But the CIO who acts more like a marketer, selling the benefits of information technology rather than obsessing over its details, is more likely to make an impression on top management, he says.

Have someone minding the store. If the CIO isn't sweating the details, who is? A technologist who wants to act like a CEO may need to have the I.T. equivalent of a chief operating officer as a backup. That's what some companies have taken to calling a chief technology officer. Whether it's a CTO or a team of operations-oriented managers, the CIO needs to appoint a trusted second to be in charge of turning the strategic vision into real, dependable systems.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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