Flying High

Flying High

At Qantas IT's all about discipline.

To paraphrase George Orwell, all CIOs are equal but some are more equal than others. This is something of a silent secret in the higher echelons of technology management, where many of the top CIOs struggle to build a network of peers with empathy for their daily and strategic challenges.

Individually, most judge and accept their peers on the size of their technology group, industry alignment and the sorts of agenda for change or IT refresh. For those in charge of Australia's biggest companies and government agencies, local soul mates are hard to find and prompt a search overseas. Discussions with a number of CIOs reveal a certain loneliness at being the head of department with multimillion-dollar responsibilities, yet in charge of an area of business that is not well understood, or worse, dismissed as secondary to operations that bring in, or count, the money.

It is a common mistake by many on the outside to assume the priorities of all CIOs are more or less the same. This is certainly true among sales and marketeers, who can view CIOs as prey with piles of discretionary cash that magically refresh every year. The game is to persuade the CIO to give you more money than the next salesperson who comes along, having also been banging on the door relentlessly for an audience.

If there is one element universal in a CIO's armoury, it is the ability to spot and then detest a salesperson's avarice, or quarterly sales target. However, CIOs appear to differentiate significantly on the key elements of their role.

There are many who are having a great time, implementing projects and really giving the business a fresh view of life through the smart use of technology. Others live a more Dickensian existence of austerity and constant cost cutting, failing to convince senior colleagues they can contribute to improving or accelerating process either through good management or the power of the silicon chip. It is hard to know which of these two camps is the majority in Australia, though I fear it is the latter.

The successful CIO appears to have the three fundamentals in place - a business-relevant strategy, normally covering a three-year outlook, a good relationship with the chief executive and - consequently - a decent budget with which to execute.

These pillars exist at many of Australia's leading companies, including the national airline, Qantas, which has on its team one of the nation's most respected CIOs, Fiona Balfour. She says her relationship, both with CEO Geoff Dixon and senior management colleagues, is essential to her success. Balfour estimates she spends some 40 percent of her time walking the Qantas corridors to maintain and build relationships. "I am lucky at Qantas because we have had an IT shop for 50 years," she says. "All the senior executives know we cannot run our business without IT. Most industries automated, or are automating, much later than we did."

Her management's commitment to IT was evident in a recent statement by CEO Dixon on the future of Qantas. In nominating nine key initiatives, the upgrade of new IT systems was second on his list. Such recognition of the technology's importance by a chief executive is rare. Balfour also defies the common lament, even among CIOs themselves, that technology-focused executives do not know their own business sufficiently. She talks expansively and without prompting of her company's "Sustainable Future" program and the desire to reduce the average age of Qantas's 200 airliners from 10.6 to 10.2 years.

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