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Resolving IT's "Mysterious" Nature

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 08-31-2009 Print

What's been the most crucial piece of your success at FedEx?

Carter: I came up through the technology ranks. I graduated college with a computer science degree and started off as a classic IT practitioner. But through the years, I made it a point--and it was terribly important--to strike a balance between business perspective and technical perspective.

Most IT professionals did an average job, at best, of working hard to understand the business, being engaged with their business as partners, as opposed to coming in and being an order taker and going back to the mysterious world of IT and having something pop out six months later.

It's been very important to me to understand the businesses I've been involved in. I went back and got my MBA after I'd been working in the field for a while because I thought I needed a better understanding of the business constructs I was working inside of.

So to me, it's always been intuitive to work hard to strike the balance. It's not more important for IT to understand the business--it's equally important for the business to understand IT and its capabilities and for IT to understand the business in a true partnership.

True, but why is the emphasis still so strongly on IT having to understand the business, and not the other way around?

Carter: IT has a significant accountability for that. For too long, we've made what we do too mysterious--taking a "pay no attention to the technical folks behind the curtain" approach. In my mind, that's a recipe for misunderstanding and lack of clarity. You're always able to work better with people if you work hard to understand what they do. When you go to your physician, he or she much prefers that you be an informed patient, that you do work to understand what you might be dealing with.

The same thing is true in IT: There's a real responsibility to not make everything we do so mysterious, but to really pull our business partners in to give them an understanding of what it takes to deliver.

Most of the misunderstandings occur around, "Why does it take so long?" and "Why does it cost so much?" Those questions are best answered by a thorough understanding of what's really going on back there. It's not a mysterious set of activities; hopefully, it's a well-planned-out and orchestrated set of deliverables that look very much like building a home or a stadium. Sometimes the costs and staff hours are greater to or equal to those kinds of projects.

These are very large efforts, and they need to be treated more like engineering efforts so that people have a tangible notion of what's going on.

What skills do CIOs need to demonstrate to win favor with business executives and demonstrate their full capabilities?

Carter: There are few places where all the processes and activities about how a company accomplishes work come together more cleanly than in the world of IT. The systems are a lens into how the business operates. It's not the other way around: It's not, IT is making workers do it one way because that's how the system works. The systems are being engineered to support business processes and activities.

What that allows the CIO to do is be a process expert at the company to understand how the business comes together--how it's integrated, how the different functions work across boundaries. A lot of times, line-of-business executives don't have that ability. They don't have the perspective with a wider aperture that allows you to see how it all comes together.

So one of the key things is to use that unique lens to help make the business work better and more effectively, and to make recommendations about how to simplify activities and processes around the business.

You can gain a lot of respect from business partners if you do that smartly and tactfully. It's not just opinion--you really do have a fact base you can bring to the table and say, "Here's how we do it today. If we were to re-engineer some of these processes in the corresponding systems, we can be more seamless to customers or we could be easier to do business with." That's a key set of skills.


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