Expert Voice: Creating the Renaissance CIO

0109 Born Again

When Peter Solvik came to Cisco Systems Inc. from Apple Computer Inc. in 1993, Cisco was a relatively new company, with revenues of about $500 million. Though it had gone public just three years before, Solvik, brought on as senior vice president and CIO and now the head of Cisco’s Internet strategy, already found a lot that needed doing. Within five years, Solvik and his team, in order to allow Cisco to achieve its growth objectives, replaced all of Cisco’s back-office legacy systems with Internet-ready technology, then connected the company’s front-office systems directly to customers. Now the company can take and place orders, answer customer queries and track shipments electronically, in one integrated operation. It’s paid off: The number of customers using tech support over the Internet has grown from 70 percent in 1998 to 82 percent in 2001, and more than 90 percent of orders are received via the Internet. The result: more than $1 billion in cost savings annually. Not bad for an initial investment of a little more than $100 million.

The building of Cisco’s so-called strategic I-Net didn’t happen by accident. It takes a whole new breed of technology executive: what we call the Renaissance CIO. At a recent CIO Forum held at Procter & Gamble Co.’s Beckett Ridge Institute just outside Cincinnati, participants voted on the strengths they believed the successful CIO would need in the future.

First of all, Renaissance CIOs are just plain smart. Many were originally hooked by the intellectual challenge of computer technology: Hardware in the 1970s and 1980s, software in the 1980s and 1990s, networking in the 1990s to the present. Most continue to be drawn to the technology, and have demonstrated the ability to understand its potential beyond what general managers understand. Eric Schmidt, the highly successful former CTO of Sun Microsystems Inc. and now CEO and chairman of Google Inc., reflects that the CTO job is the best position in the company, in part because of its potential for great success—or failure—and that the job brings daily challenges. Renaissance CIOs are not interested in climbing the traditional career ladder.

And they are not narrow technologists, either. Most are broad thinkers with fast minds. These executives are not only good at IT; they are drawn to it, challenged by it. And they’re quick studies of management, thriving on the challenge of understanding its intricacies. Since Renaissance CIOs view the world through an information lens, they frequently pick up on patterns that other executives, with their people-oriented, financial and customer-driven perspectives, will overlook. And they’re attracted to companies—usually larger ones—with both the money to afford strategic IT and the business challenges that make the game worth playing. Yet some Renaissance CIOs have no formal IT background at all. Often, they come from the most important lines of business.

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