TORONTO — CIOs have come a long way in their relationships with CEOs, but there are still moments of discomfort, a conference was told.

Speaking to about 40 senior executives at the inaugural IT Leadership 2001 conference, Andrew Wnek, CIO and senior vice-president of IT for Canadian Tire Corp., identified one of these problems: “CEOs see a new capability but may not understand how it affects the cost structure,” he said. “You may upgrade the software, but there’s a maintenance cost, an upgrade cost and maybe a new server. The CEO doesn’t understand that.” Nor does a CEO always understand the implications of a new technology to the underlying IT infrastructure.

Wnek recalled one particularly “bad day” recently when his CEO was pitched by Microsoft for wireless services and his marketing colleagues were hit on by Bell Canada for a new e-commerce service. Wnek hadn’t know about either until later.

It’s humorous from the standpoint that Microsoft tried to sell to his CEO directly, says Wnek, but it’s also a good sign. “It’s a great example of how interested he is and how he believes technology will make our organization better. I’m very pleased with how he views IT as critical.”

Indeed, things have changed.

Like most organizations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Canadian Tire’s IT department was merely a service unit. “The organization was based on the loudest voice and the biggest wallet. Projects were relationship driven, to get things done you had to know the right person,” says Wnek who has been with the company since 1987 and has served as CIO for the last 18 months.

In the new order, the CIO is a senior executive and participates in all aspects of business strategy. “I sit on every committee and have an equal voice,” he says. Wnek’s major responsibilities include delivering projects on time and on budget, aligning activities to the strategic plan, setting priorities for the future, giving advice and counsel, and providing a strategic capability.

As examples, Wnek said: “We’ve really improved our ability to understand what is happening at the store level. We have ‘daily sales,’ ‘daily inventory’ (reports) and we understand what is and what is not selling on a daily basis. We also have a lot more data around how our marketing promotions are doing.

“On the customer side, we have a huge amount of information at our acceptance company (Canadian Tire’s financial services arm). They’re using that to make calls around supplementary products to sell.”

In an interview, Wnek said of the CIO position, “I think it’s still a very busy and challenging job. From a management point of view, I rely on my people a lot. I’m a big delegator and I believe people have an accountability to get the job done.”

“Where my job gets difficult is influencing the business. My stress isn’t around the hours and the complexity, it’s influencing people and getting them to involve IT in the organization. The other part is IT is not there to be techies, they are there to understand and support the business.”

Wnek said he meets with the CEO every two weeks.

“We’re pretty religious on meetings. We cover any issues going on, new things we have seen, go over projects and then there’s an ad hoc portion. We’ve known each for eleven years, he’s in my office a lot asking my opinion on things, whether it’s IT or something related to business. I’m free to walk into his office anytime.”

In his presentation, Wnek also listed some potential areas of conflict. No. 1 is cost (negotiating budgets) and constantly changing priorities. “A project of the month is not unusual at Canadian Tire, we love to do everything. But that’s when things don’t get done.”

Another is overexposure to new technology. “Martha Billes (Canadian Tire director) gets a RIM device and panic starts to set in. The whole organization has to stop and make it useful to her.”

The event, being held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Metro Convention Center in Toronto, marks the first time conference organizer International Quality and Productivity Centre (IQPC) has specifically has aimed at senior IS executives.

“Our research in this market shows many CIOs are struggling to get on the same page as executives,” said Andrew Perkins, director, special events for IQPC.

Perkins acknowledges that getting CIOs to present has been an issue in the past, but you can get them to appear if you: “Find out what they care about and tell them what kind of company they will be keeping.”

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