The Role of Special Ops

Robert Terdeman laughs when the topic of his title is brought up.

The new chief information architect — a moniker he asked for — at Rogers says the tongue-in-cheek humour of the acronym, CIA, is often lost. But he says more people might ask for it if they knew bridging the gap between IT and

business is equal parts domain knowledge and covert operations.

A self-described hired gun, the data warehousing specialist was brought on board to standardize all the information within Rogers. Terdeman says there is more than meets the eye where major projects are concerned. For when it comes to spending millions of your company’s dollars, projects are a team mission.

The first member is the champion, someone who will tout a CIO’s vision. Terdeman says the individual is often young and bright, and always from the business side of the house. And it doesn’t hurt if she’s a woman.

“”For one, they’re better listeners, and two, they know how to compromise,”” Terdeman says. “”They know how to build teamwork more effectively. “”But you need someone who is capable of crossing the lines between IT and business to create a holistic environment to succeed.””

Your champion needs a counterpart on the other side. Terdeman says a senior business person who shares the same vision fills the role perfectly.

Paul Jackson, vice-president of info services at Western Inventory Services, says this role is critical.

“”I come from operations originally, so I have a pretty good understanding of what they’re trying to do, why and how,”” Jackson says. “”If you don’t have the buy- in from the operational people the project won’t be a success.””

What often gets distorted, however, is the length of time it takes for the project to be completed. Because the business side doesn’t always understand how a system works, Jackson says project length is poorly understood.

“”Some things they think can be done in two minutes often take weeks to do,”” he says, but on the flip-side, something that could have a significant impact might only take minutes to complete.

The last piece in the puzzle is perhaps the most important: A project champion.

“”You have to have a hidden sponsor at the highest level of the company,”” Terdeman says, “”who is willing to essentially only step in in the extreme cases that something gets blocked.””

Assembling a team is a moot point, however, without a vision. Someone who has to be, in Terdeman’s words, “”willing to propagate the vision even in the face of ridicule from his peers.”” Al MacDonald agrees. The senior vice-president of CGI Atlantic says the key to being a CIO is the ability to see into his or her company’s future and set a course towards it.

Not only does the post require someone with foresight, but also someone who can communicate that corporate vision.

“”It’s one thing to have a vision, but if you can’t express that value and map that value to where the CEO wants to take his or her organization, it won’t work,”” MacDonald says.

CIOs often feel, however, their voices aren’t heard over the rattling of a near-empty piggy bank. Terdeman says a way to raise your visibility within an organization is to establish credentials on the outside.

“”One of the healthy things that can occur is outside professional activity, which gets some degree of public recognition, which then entitle you to speak as an expert rather than simply as an employee,”” Terdeman advises.

There is also the option of bringing in what Terdeman calls a change agent who can speak on the CIO’s behalf. As an outsider, the agent can say things without fear of retribution. These people usually help get the job done, he says, but they also tend to get fired.

“”I’m working hard at getting myself fired,”” Terdeman adds with a laugh.

The vision can’t be purely technological, but the almighty dollar can’t be the first consideration either. Terdeman says the first step is to identify the problem — such as how to grow the business or improve the relationship with customers. Once the goals have been established, compromises can then be discussed, he says.

“”It’s a key that the IT (leaders) have to be viewed as businessmen and not IT people, and we are,”” Terdeman says. “”We manage large budgets; we implement large projects; we manage people; we worry about internal processes.

“”There are people at very high levels of the company who appreciate the fact that you will take risks and take personal responsibility, but there’s no safe ground here. This is not a job for the weak-willed.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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