CIO James Knight: Leading Through the Recession

By Eric Lundquist

"Resourcefulness" is the one-word answer to what a CIO needs to have in 2009.

So says James Knight, global CIO of Warren, N.J.-based insurer Chubb, in a telephone interview conducted while he was attending the Society for Information Management's annual SIMposium meeting in Florida. Learning when to delegate and to be resourceful at all times have been the keys to his rise in the company, and they continue to be key attributes in good times and bad. Knight has more than 28 years of experience in the property and casualty insurance industry.

"The more I was able to reach out across boundaries to get something done, the better I performed," Knight says. In 2009, he sees some opportunities that would not be available if Chubb were facing many of the challenges currently affecting some firms in the financial sector. Because Chubb is prudent in its underwriting, Knight says, it has had no exposure to the subprime mortgage fallout. "From an IT point of view, I see demand ever increasing," he adds.

With technology at the center of everything Chubb does, Knight finds himself looking at "all the moving parts"--all the new technologies and all the demands from the business groups, as well as sorting out the priorities and projects that are most urgently needed and represent the greatest investment payoff.

"For information-based companies, information and the need for analytics around that information are paramount, and everyone recognizes the importance of that," Knight says. Despite that, Chubb does not want to be the first to utilize a new technology. "A comfortable second wouldn't bother us at all," he adds. In 2009, Chubb's technology investments will still require a robust business case in order to proceed.

For CIOs who may not have experienced as many ups and downs in the economic cycle, Knight advises that they build trust within their companies by delivering on what they promise.

He adds that a high degree of transparency of projects is also needed so that executives supporting the project will have a clear understanding of what is to be delivered--and at what cost. Finally, it's crucial for IT executives to speak about the business outcomes of their efforts, rather than simply engaging in technology-laden descriptions.

One of the items that is high on the IT agenda is dealing with information overload. Helping the company find the information it needs, applying business intelligence systems to the information and presenting the information in the format that business managers need are key requirements, and they can be addressed only through a combination of processes and technologies.

"It's all about synthesizing numbers down to the key indicators," Knight says. "That tells you a lot."

Regarding social networks, Knight says their most immediate value may be in finding and highlighting skills within the company. He's considering using something like an "internal Facebook" to identify and highlight the internal wisdom of Chubb's employees.

Regardless of the economy, Knight says qualities such as resourcefulness; the ability to understand "the business first and IT second"; and the talent and skill necessary to take an idea, build a project structure around it and then deliver on that project will continue to be differentiators for CIOs and their companies.

This article was originally published on 02-16-2009