A juggling act

A juggling act

CIOs are taking on more roles, such as innovation, infocom or marketing director and even CEO. We find out why.

Managing an IT shop is a tough-enough job as it is, but many CIOs are fascinated with additional responsibilities. Apart from the temptation of a bigger and fatter pay packet, why would IT executives take on more jobs? Necessity, job satisfaction and the chance to experience 'the other side' were some of the reasons IT executives gave for accepting multiple roles.

For Michael Wirth, IT director of Oasis Hong Kong Airlines, he did not have a choice. When the budget carrier was established last February, he took up both IT and marketing roles, because he had to.

"In a startup scenario, when you have only a few people, everybody has to do everything," he says. "We just do what we are best at. With the understanding of technology and the industry, I took up technology and marketing." Wirth's job was to set up an entire new IT shop, policy and infrastructure, develop new business applications, as well as to design the company's tickets sales and distribution strategy, all from scratch. "Coming from a marketing perspective, I know how to achieve business goals by stretching the limits of available technology," he says.

"This is how technology should be. IT should be enabling business, not

driving business."

Bridging the gap

Being the single person that oversaw both business units, Wirth not only understood the distribution model inside out, but also recognised the limits of the available technology, allowing him to help solve many business problems. One of them was to develop a ticket distribution system that fit the budget airline business model.

To offer budget price tickets with regular in-flight services, Oasis needed a ticket distribution system that has a minimal operation cost leveraging the internet. Meanwhile, tickets should also be available through the traditional channels like the travel agencies, who rely on the industry standard global distribution system (GDS).

However the industry standard technologies for GDS compliance are very expensive, because they are designed and provided by the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), says Wirth. "Our distribution system needs to fit both sides of the world," he says. "We need to minimise the cost associated with the old distribution paradigm and create a new distribution system, leveraging the internet."

By understanding the business program, Wirth was able to source a supplier that built an application to suit Oasis' needs, reducing the huge cost of purchasing industry standard technologies. The design and implementation was also done efficiently, because he was able to reduce the entire process of explaining the business concept and user requirements.

"This is like buying a car. If you are the driver, you know exactly what you want and what you need," he says. "If you are the owner but not the driver, it's very difficult to describe the features you need. There's always a gap between the driver and

the owner."

With Oasis' growth and expansion, Wirth now retains only the role of IT head. But the experience drew his attention to the importance of aligning IT and marketing. To ensure the distribution continues to meet changing pricing models and user requirements, he established a team that serves different departments. "The team aims to cross the boundary between IT and the sales and distribution business unit," he says.

It is particularly useful when the company launches a promotion on special fares. The cross-departmental team will ensure different parties and their applications within the distribution ecosystem are supporting the promotional offer. Recalling his experience of wearing multiple hats, Wirth says: "This is the most rewarding job I have ever had, because I was able to take a concept and put it into practice," he says. "It's like building a sculpture from clay and I love it, absolutely."

Turning ideas into reality

A rewarding job experience is also the reason that brings Rosina Howe-Teo into the position of carrying multiple responsibilities. As director of the innovation and infocomm technology group at Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA), Howe-Teo's job includes not only managing IT, but also ensuring the deliverable of the annual innovation initiatives. She also co-chairs the Land Transportation Innovation Fund, which is open to the public and private sector to spearhead new initiatives in Singapore.

"Certainly, I have found immense job satisfaction handling both units," she says. "While the ICT arm deals primarily with technology, the innovation arm lets me reach out to the whole organisation in matters beyond IT."

Howe-Teo started her dual roles at LTA in 2001, two years after joining the organisation. She was appointed chief innovation officer, while continuing her position as director of IT. Since then, she has also taken roles in corporate development to oversee organisational initiatives in achieving excellence in innovation, service and process.

Although much of her responsibilities are technology-driven, Howe-Teo says having an innovation-driven culture at LTA means the role of IT goes beyond creating efficiency and cost savings. "Innovations are based on ideas, which are merely vapour-ware without action," she notes. "At the same time, implementation of ideas without some involvement of technology cannot be sustained."

Technology then becomes the ultimate enabler in turning ideas into live projects and no one is more familiar with the entire process than the CIO. Thus last August, the organisation merged the technology and innovation functions to become the innovation and infocomm technology group. The merge indicates not only a changing role of LTA's IT shop, but also Howe-Teo's responsibility.

"Frankly, my role as CIO has been enhanced to a large extent," she says. "I've always believed that CIOs should not be valued just for their technology-savviness but also for their contributions as a member of the senior management team with organisational responsibilities."

After taking up a senior position within the organisation, Howe-Teo notes that her responsibility is no longer defined as IT or non-IT related. "My IT background has given me the edge in analytical skills which I use practically in any circumstance," she says. "My modus operandi is that if I find a procedure unproductive, then I should do something about it and not complain."

Split identity

While Wirth and Howe-Teo were proud and happy to take on the additional roles within the company, it is not the case for everyone. When Sunny Lee, executive director of IT at Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), was first invited to be involved in responsibilities outside IT, he was worried.

"The first thing that came to my mind was, 'if the IT person is taking part in business decisions, who can I point the finger at if something goes wrong?'" Lee says. "Many of my peers also believed I should not move to the business side. They said I may suffer from an identity crisis, and confuse roles and responsibilities."

Those were concerns for IT executives almost 10 years ago, when the role of IT remained as the technical support. But Towngas' management invited Lee, back then the head of IT, to be involved in the company's business re-engineering strategy. Despite the discouragement, Lee took on the challenge as well as a couple of other general management roles within Towngas. These roles include the CEO for the company's internet venture, iCare, which was to provide content and last mile access to household using set-top boxes, as well as CEO of Towngas telecom, a venture that aims to provide internet access via the gas pipeline network.

"I thought it might be a good opportunity to experience the other side of the business, so I could be a better CIO," he recalls.

To shine in business

Having survived from the risk of identity crisis and the internet bubble burst, Lee says these experiences brought him a whole new perspective on the role of IT. "My only goal, as an IT director, used to be delivering the system on-time and within budget," he says. "When I've established a few of these projects, successfully meeting users' requirements and expectations, I was already a star."

But after taking on the general management, Lee realised the IT star is only a small part of a successful business. Delivering IT on time and within budget, for the management, is not an achievement, but a minimum requirement.

"My major concerns [as CEO] were whether I'm getting enough customers and creating good products," he says. "IT is one of the least things I want to

worry about."

Now moving back to a full-time CIO role, Lee says the experience definitely helped him to become a better IT executive, especially for a dynamic organisation like HKJC, which has a very unique business model, including horse racing, football betting, charity and private club management.

"I've learned to relate what I've done before into a new business and to enhance it," says Lee. "That's because I've been through the hardest part, that is, running an internet business, a completely new business model back then."

He was able to relate his previous experience to the new environment. For example, on the customer service side, he is now applying the call centres technologies in Towngas, like predictive calling, SMS or the use of business intelligence (BI) and data mining, into the frontline betting business unit.

Right the wrongs

The experience also allowed Lee to discover previous mistakes.

"I found that a lot of what I used to do was wrong," he says. "But unfortunately, many IT heads these days are still repeating the same mistakes."

One of them is a wrong attitude towards business users. "I used to wish one day the users will stop giving us requirements. We already had more projects than we can handle. Can we turn them away? Can we make it more difficult for them to make requests? Can we make them think twice before they make a request?" he asks.

Coming back from the general business side, Lee realised users' changing requirements are due to the fluctuating business environment. Being a better CIO now, he learnt to anticipate business changes and users' requirements. Thus during system design, IT should put in the anticipated business changes in consideration. "So, before the problems surface, we already have a chance to fix them," he says. "Gone are the days when we can say: we are here to serve. We are here to build."

Skills for survival

Another major lesson Lee learnt is even though IT always matters to the organisation, the IT shop may not. "Our business users actually have a choice. If I'm not good enough, they can always outsource it," he says. Lee's observation supports a recent Gartner report, which states IT organisations' (ITO) roles in managing infrastructure, operations and shared-service application life cycle portfolio are increasingly commoditised by automation and outsourcing.

"ITOs that show a high proficiency in business process optimisation and change management will retain head count as business professionalism inculcates the ITO," states Bill Kirwin, research vice-president, in the report.

"ITOs that do not adapt will shrink in size, provide utility services and command less strategic influence."

To maintain a strategic value in business, Lee says CIOs should be more proactive in treating themselves as an external technology supplier.

"We should deliver at a higher response time and quality just as good as, or even better than, the vendors," says Lee. "We should be hungrier for opportunities in leveraging IT to improve business operations or to enable expansion."

When the task list keeps growing

While many CIOs wearing multiple hats do enjoy the bonus of a rewarding experience, most of the time, more work does mean less fun, without special skills in time and resource management. Although the days of handling multiple roles are over for Sunny Lee, executive director IT at Hong Kong Jockey Club, he continues to be involved in more than 40 community engagements. Lee shares a few tips on juggling when the task list keeps growing and the clock keeps ticking:

* Give clear directions

"One thing I learnt is that you need to delegate," he says. Being able to accurately explain the vision, delegate the job to the right people and avoid micro-management, is one of the more important skills CIOs should master.

* Make good use of Blackberry Apart from keeping in touch with corporate email, Blackberry can also be a tool for brainstorming ideas. "If I am in bed and suddenly think of something, I can type the idea on the Blackberry and send it to my team," says Lee.

* Be consistent

"Once you say A one day and B the next, the team will wait for C, until you make up your mind," he says. When a direction is set, the manager should keep everyone on the same course.

* Avoid technical details

"My weakness is that I can really indulge myself in technical details," says Lee. Like many techies, he also enjoys engaging in technical discussions. But the flip side of being able to multi-task is also to let go of the technical execution details. "Sometimes I think, it'd be nice if I can join this project," he says. "But I keep learning to pull myself out, in order to keep my head above water to see things from a birds' eye view. This is my role, this is what I'm hired for, and so I have to discipline myself."

Moving up the ladder

Depending on the individual career goal, moving from CIO to CEO is certainly a career advancement, says Michael Wirth, head of IT at Oasis Hong Kong Airlines.

With a background in entrepreneurship, Wirth says taking up additional business roles certainly helps CIOs looking to climb up the corporate ladder.

"IT is just a tool for the company. It's like the trucks in a construction company," he says. "If you want to be successful in a property company, you cannot remain a truck driver."

In most industries, IT plays no more than a significant tool for the operation. Ultimately, running a business will move beyond creating efficiency, but creating revenue, managing finance, human resources and marketing the company.

"If a CIO is aiming to advance his career, he or she should look at opportunities in contributing to different business functions," he says. "If you focus only on technology, you will remain a geek."

Do you also wear multiple hats as CIO? Share your thoughts by emailing the editor.

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