CIOs wonder: Are vendors really our partners?

CALGARY – Executives at a CIO Summit West panel Monday said their role has graduated over the last few years, but with it has come the complex challenge of presenting business acumen with the always-on technical savvy still expected by the boardroom brass.

The message from the five CIOs at

a discussion called, The Heart of the Matter: The Role of the CIO in Managing Complexity was that while they are part of the executive team, they still face the daily challenges of pushing IT to solve business problems, even when the business leaders don’t know where they want to go.

“”You have to have direction from the business unit. So often you get business looking to IT. Being part of the business management team is fine, but you need direction from business,”” said Nick Curry, vice-president business transformation and IT with MTS Communications, Inc. of Manitoba. “”It’s still a huge issue for us to get a well-thought out business plan that can work before IT can deliver.””

For CIOs who have not had to struggle with being part of the executive team, working alongside the CFO and CEO has been a winning formula.

“”I’m lucky, I was always involved in the corporate management team,”” said Robin Lynas, CIO with Mark’s Work Wearhouse Ltd. “”You absolutely have to do everything you can to be part of the corporate management team. IT can’t sit in the corner any more.””

At the same time, however, many CIOs still believe their major contribution to the organization is one of IT expertise, not swapping business plans with executives. The IT knowledge is something no one else can bring to the table, said Duncan Kent, vice-president and CIO of Enbridge Inc.

“”If we believe that things like XML offer the opportunities of dramatic transformation for business, we have to be able to talk to CEOs about how that can happen,”” he said.

Kent said his biggest challenge is to “”build the courage”” of people in the business groups so they can improve business processes through the use of technology. He says too often organizations get conservative and choose to follow best practices instead of taking a risk and discovering an innovative way to solve a problem using IT.

“”People running applications today lack the confidence to rebuild those applications. People are too quick to grab at someone else’s best practice,”” he said.

Some CIOs are finding that the breadth of tasks they have been asked to take on finds them with one foot in the executive suite and one still firmly planted in the IT backroom – a challenge few other senior level managers find themselves in.

“”The most vexing problem I have is how do I keep abreast of the responsibilities I have and at the same time answer questions such as ‘What is the coolest wireless device to have?’ It’s a quandary most executives don’t have to face and still do strategic thinking,”” said Art Smith, senior technical advisor with AmberPoint Inc.

Stick-handling the complexities of vendor “”partnerships”” also creates an uneasy environment for CIOs as well, said Smith, who argues the bulk of relationships with vendors is transactional and few are actual partnerships. There must be, he said, a fair exchange of value.

“”The vendor needs to understand I’m not always waiting for the next release,”” he said.

“”I scratch my head when people talk about partnerships and trust. The only true partnership I see is marriage and everything else is a transaction based. That said, even marital relationships sometimes start over a few drinks. I always wonder when someone wants to start a conversation on the basis of partnership when really you’re both working on behalf of your company’s best interest,”” said Smith. To make it work, the partners, as in marriage, have to be able to sit in a room and “”talk about the tough issues.””

But that wasn’t the view held by all members of the panel. Others suggested there can be a win-win when a camaraderie develops between the vendor and customer in the pursuit of solving a business problem. Not all partnerships have to be about improving shareholder value for the respective company.

“”Instead of having opposing hockey teams, you put together an Olympic team that, when standing alone, could not be a winning team,”” said Kent.

The CIO Summit continues Tuesday.


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