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Mixing It Up

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 04-01-2008 Print

Mixing It Up

Focusing on both strategy and operations is a reality of life for Chris Gillespie, CIO of Prestige Brands, maker of household products including Comet and Chloraseptic. He divides his time fairly evenly between the two areas--but that's an average over time.

"It's like bungee jumping," Gillespie says. "You go very quickly from a high-level discussion with the London office about an online marketing campaign, to troubleshooting problems with the firewall or working with a database administrator, and then back up again." Bouncing back and forth between functions can be frustrating, with systems problems sometimes pulling him away from commitments to business unit managers for days at a time.

Gillespie reports to Chief Financial Officer Peter Anderson and has worked to move beyond a strictly tactical role. He spends more time on strategy than he did when he arrived at Prestige's Irvington, N.Y., offices nearly a year ago. To expand his portfolio, the veteran of the IT services firm EDS had to understand the dynamics of the company, which focuses on paying down debt and is not inclined to throw money at technology.

"You have to dig into the financials and figure out the lay of the land," Gillespie says. But his investment of time and effort was worthwhile.

"If I weren't involved at the strategic level, I wouldn't have the backing of the businesspeople," he explains. "I'd be director of IT. You have to look at things from the perspective of the company and at an industry level in order to use technology to bring value to customers."

Tarde of Interstate Batteries also takes a strategic view. He is part of a leadership group that reports to the CEO at the Pharr, Texas, distributor.

"We put together a strategy to form an enterprise perspective that looks far down the road and is adjusted on a yearly basis, and we put tactical plans in place to support that strategy," he says. "My organization focuses on implementing the proper technologies to achieve our strategy, but we look a lot more at growing revenue than on cutting costs or keeping the lights on in the data center."

Yet, Interstate's large national account business often requires Tarde to provide IT support in areas such as electronic data interchange setup or online presence. For example, when an acquired company needed its legacy systems replaced to get up to speed with Interstate, it required a major commitment of Tarde's attention. So the mix of strategic and tactical jobs is an accepted part of his workday.

"As a profession, the CIO function has a good look at the entire enterprise, and from that perspective, we can offer a lot of value to the company," he says. "At the same time, we have to be tactical, to operate and deliver on time and on budget."

Determining whether a job is tactical or strategic can be in the eye of the beholder. Celadon Group CIO Gabbei sees the strategic role as "dreaming up new businesses."

He gives the example of an industry-buying group--open to small and midsize trucking firms and focused on essentials such as tires and fuel--that was organized and maintained by Celadon. The network provides the company with a fresh source of revenue. The idea for the group wasn't Gabbei's, but his group provides extensive technology support.

Gabbei says he played a tactical role on a project where he provided leadership, even though the project brought in new revenue. It involved an IT system that notifies customers when they are about to be charged for keeping a Celadon truck waiting too long at the loading dock--detention, in industry parlance. "Our emphasis is on getting the truck out," he explains. "Drivers don't get paid for sitting idle, and we don't get paid when they are not moving, so the company charges for detention."

When Celadon improved its tracking of arrivals and departures with an automated system, detention revenue went up and wait times went down. "I've brought revenue streams into the business, but it wasn't necessarily new business," he says. "I do that day in and day out--throw around new ideas for aligning with business."

In the estimation of Forrester's Cullen, that kind of work goes well beyond the tactical mode. Worrying about the packages on the trucks is not a general manager's job. A job that seems routine to an IT executive could, when applied to other areas of the company, take on strategic importance.

"If you're a CIO operating tactically in a non-IT area, is that strategic or tactical?" asks Pickett, SIM's past president. "Take a CIO at a manufacturing company who recognizes that engineering and manufacturing aren't communicating well, and then takes his or her knowledge of process and organization and applies it to the problem. That's strategic, although it looks tactical to the engineering and manufacturing groups."

In other words, you may be more strategic than you think. In the end, the rigid definitions don't always matter that much.

A CIO who is keyed into the mission of the business on a consistent basis probably is doing the job right, whatever the demands of the job may be at that moment.

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