Bill George on CIOs: Get Out And Lead

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 10-26-2009 Print Email
Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, sees opportunity for CIOs in these challenging economic times—but not if they don’t harness the importance of IT to enable the business.

Ask CIOs if they have solid relationships with business leaders, and they'll likely say, "Yes." Ask business leaders about their CIOs, and you'll likely hear a different story. And this disconnect has only increased.

Nor does the apparent easing of the recession mean CIOs can rest easy. Just as no one knew exactly how bad things would get, no one really knows exactly when they will return to normal--or even what normal will look like.

Bill George, the acclaimed former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, professor of management at Harvard Business School, and author of the new book, 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, says things won't ever be the same. What is clear, he says, is that CIOs need to do everything they can to enable the business. That means giving all employees the tools they need to reach customers and to collect and analyze data on their clients.

Part of the battle for CIOs is to communicate IT's capabilities; but far more important, George says, is to demonstrate that value. George offered a candid look at CIOs and IT from the executive's viewpoint in a recent conversation with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson. What follows is an edited, condensed version of that discussion.

CIO INSIGHT: What's your perception of IT leaders and what they bring to the table in a crisis?

One thing is for sure: When we come out of this crisis, the markets companies are serving are going to look dramatically different. Take retail. Yes, it's true that everyone's gone to Wal-Mart because it's the lowest cost, but large organizations like Niemen Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue are struggling.

A lot of people are hunkering down, saying, "Let's just get through this and get back to the good old days of 2006 and 2007." That's not going to happen.

Progressive companies are trying to get in front of that. Today, you've got to get ahead with IT--there's no way to get ahead without it. You can't just afford to have full personal coverage--you have to have great customer information systems and ways for your people and executives to connect with customers, and for customers to connect with you. It's a lot more than having a good Website--it's being really interactive and using online tools to do that.

I would think progressive CIOs would be right out in front of that by showing the business value. How can we build market share? How can we build a revenue base? How can we connect with our customers to raise their satisfaction? All of those things are extremely important--not just to be the back-room people figuring out the techie side.

Take a company like Apple. Apple has done an amazing job of connecting people with information. That's what we want to do at companies. How do we really hook up to our customers with really good information? Everything comes down to human factors. Executives don't have time to learn all the technical stuff--they just want to be connected. So how do I use IT to get much more connected with my customers?

Is there a deficit in CIOs' ability to communicate the value of IT to the C-level?

A lot of people talk about how they communicate IT value. I'd rather see them demonstrate the value. I want to see it in my laptop, my iPhone. I want to see that value right in front of me. I want to be so linked up, I want our customer data to be so good.

Airlines are the least customer-friendly companies in the world, yet they have great IT systems. But have they taken the next step? They have great reservation systems, but are they really connecting with me?

Amazon has some of the best customer information systems and database management of any company in the world, and they use that to market. I've never met anyone from Amazon, but I do business with them. I do everything online. My wife wants to get a Kindle, and she asks whom she can call. I tell her not to bother calling--just do everything online. Just give me the tools to make me effective.

Another thing that's important coming out of this crisis is globalization. I want to hook up with my customers all over the globe. How can I connect seamlessly with my customers in Australia? In India? At Medtronic, we had development teams in Minnesota that worked during the day, and teams in India that worked off that cycle. So the [Indian team] uploaded everything when the Americans went home, and when the workers in Minnesota came back the next morning, everything was done. That's the kind of seamless IT I want to have on a global basis, 24/7.

The third thing is that we're living in a globally cost-competitive world. One of the first lessons in my book is, "Face Reality, Starting With Yourself." That's the reality today.

What are the best ways my company can save money? Honestly, not having as many people. How I do that is through IT productivity. I have fewer salespeople, but they're more productive because I'm giving them the right tools to work with. Our quality systems need to work so well that we don't have any rework. I can link up my engineers in 10 different virtual-development locations through such good IT systems that people can work from home. Sometimes we focus so much on security that we lose sight of connectivity and ease of access. We want to make it easy.

These are ways we can use IT to be more competitive. It doesn't matter if your name is General Motors or General Electric--business has to offer better value to customers than your competitors do. If you can't, you'll be out of business.

Do you agree when the business often says IT takes too long and costs too much?

And that they're too bureaucratic. But rather than warding those off, CIOs need to get out in front of them. They need to be leaders. There are a lot of IT people who are really good implementers, really good executors--but I'm asking them to be my leader.



 

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