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I taught my twin sons to play football. Today they are sophomores in high school, playing on a nationally ranked team that recently won the Texas state championship. I haven't coached them for years, but they still look to me for leadership. Their need for guidance requires me to understand their environment. I have to get to know their competitors, to understand what the other fans and coaches are saying and doing. And I have to work hard to keep up.

These same principles apply when it comes to solving our companies' business problems. Once we get beyond the initial implementation of a system, we need to stay abreast of how each system is being used in order to be relevant as business leaders. We have to get out of the office and into the field to keep informed about what employees and our external customers are thinking, as well as what they need.

The experiential approach to application development and technology implementation is certainly not new; however, keeping up-to-date with what is going on with both customers and employees is becoming increasingly difficult. Technology development cycles are shrinking, and the pace of change in American industry is getting faster. Every aspect of business is becoming more global, and the role of the CIO is evolving. All of this is happening at the same time.

American Airlines has 80,000 employees who manage 4,300 flights a day for 90 million customers. If I am to use IT to provide more value to the customers, I have to add value for the employees as well. The better I can understand the technology needs of the employees, the more value I can provide. New problems, new requirements and changes to the overall work environment that occur over time dictate that I continue to get into the field. Meanwhile, as a representative of the executive leadership team, I have an opportunity to reinforce the goals and objectives of the company, dispel rumors and answer questions about what is going on at headquarters.

The Value of Field Experience

Back in November, I tried to better understand what our 19,000 flight attendants do by working as a flight attendant on a few flights to and from Dallas and the West Coast.

I was pretty sure I knew what flight attendants do. I was a frequent flier prior to joining American, and I've been flying a lot since then as well. The opportunity to work as a flight attendant on a few trips taught me otherwise. My understanding of what the IT group needs to build to help this group of employees do their jobs better is different than what I would have thought before working in this group.

For example, the kind of application I suspected would be most beneficial for managing the inventory of food and beverages on board did not take into consideration the diversity there is in catering operations on different flights. I also learned there is a big difference in how the forward and aft cabins are managed on different aircrafts. What I learned during my brief tenure as a flight attendant will change the way we approach any IT projects we do for the in-flight services department.

In addition, I now have a much better idea about how we should go about gathering some of the key requirements for future systems. When I asked flight attendants about what they needed, I was surprised that they told me not about their requirements but about what customers wanted. So next time we scope out a new system, we'll focus more on what customers need flight attendants to do.

Another example: My team is in the middle of a computer rollout that will replace all the desktop systems in the company. We are finding that there is no substitute for managers going to deployment sites to view what is going on. These visits have provided insights into issues that would have cropped up later, such as how much heat was being disseminated from the CPU in its enclosure. These are minor problems, but taking the initiative to identify them contributes to the project's success.

Make Your Trip a Success

A visit to the field, by its nature, leads to the conclusion that your experience is definitive--that what you see happens all the time. To make sure your experience serves as an effective reality check, it pays to prepare thoroughly.

Determine what you want to accomplish prior to setting foot outside your door. Design your visit with help from knowledgeable people in the organization to make sure you won't just be in the way and that you will get information you can use. Before I did my stint as a flight attendant, the in-flight services team helped me prioritize what I wanted to get out of my visit--including a better understanding of the sequence of tasks that must be completed during a flight. They also made sure I wouldn't hinder the work of the professional flight attendants or compromise safety. I worked in both first-class and coach, assigned to jobs that allowed me to experience the full range of interaction with customers.

A prepared script comes in handy at this point, because it keeps you focused. The script should include questions to get answers to, as well as information you want to impart while visiting that particular operation.

Depositing information while out in the field is just as important as getting it. CIOs have enough credibility as members of the senior management team to answer employees' questions and give information about current business problems or their possible solutions--including information about subjects that are not IT related. Therefore, it is important to make sure that your script includes information that you want to make sure to impart when you leave. Before I took off as a flight attendant, I made sure I was up to speed on all the flight attendants' issues, such as our route scheduling plans.

Now, Get Going

There's no formula for getting out of the office. For me, an ad hoc system works best. Whenever there's something about our operations that I don't understand, or haven't checked out in a while, I get on the road.

Of course, there are a million excuses for staying at the office: The budget is due this month; that major system is rolling out next quarter. It's easier not to get away. But if you're serious about adding value as a leader, you have to make the commitment to get in the end user's and the customer's shoes.

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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