What makes a person a top IT leader?

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, as Albert Einstein mused, then CIO Viji Murali, 52, is the picture of mental health.

She’s also known as an original, if not contrarian, thinker – and a bit of a speed demon.

Murali arrived at Washington State University from Western Michigan University a little over a year ago. There, she found an aging IT infrastructure that was clearly unacceptable for a top-notch research university competing for the best and brightest students.
So, she immediately set about trailblazing. To secure more money for much-needed IT projects, Murali hired a director of IT fundraising to solicit financial and in-kind help from successful and tech-savvy alumni. To expedite the implementation of an ultra-high-speed fibre network through mountainous regions in Washington and nearby
Idaho, she hired an outside consultant and became an expert in fiber installation and cross-state taxation issues.

Now, university researchers whose work involves huge files and databases can exchange that data over one of the world’s fastest networks.

John Seral, CIO at GE Infrastructure, has a similar need for speed — and virtually no attachment to doing things the way they’ve always been done.

Instead of taking the more traditional route and negotiating lower pricing to cut rapidly soaring software-licensing costs, Seral, 49, banished all licensed desktop software at GE Infrastructure after completing a successful pilot test using nothing but open-source applications. He then pushed GE’s top brass to do the same companywide.

The result: “No more licensed desktops, period,” reports Seral. “Going forward, all of our growth will be covered by [open-source] products. There’s no cost in, and there is cost out immediately. We’re getting instant return.”

Washington State’s Murali says, “My job is to bridge a decade of backwardness as well as to forge ahead, and the old tried-and-true ways are not going to get me where I need to be. It’s time for CIOs to come up with their own best practices, to chart a new course.”

That seems to be the resounding chorus of Computerworld‘s 2009 Premier 100 IT Leaders, who more than ever are making a clean break with traditional IT strategies and roles and creating altogether new ones. Frank Sirianni, CIO at Fordham University, is a perfect example.

“It’s my personal mission to either come up with new sources of revenue or ways to save money,” Sirianni says. In the five-year budget he sent to the university’s board of directors, he vowed to further reduce energy, paper and printing costs by seven figures.

Ranging in age from 34 to 62, the 78 men and 22 women who make up the Premier 100 list are collaborators and consolidators. They are environmental and social policy leaders at their organizations. They tend to ignore well-worn lines of demarcation between business and consumer technology and are supporting blogs, wikis, iPhones and social networks. They deploy what works rather than what’s politically safe. But they’re also politically savvy when it comes to presenting their ideas and winning over top executives who may be more traditional.

“You have to build a good value proposition for the business,” says Daniel Wakeman, 47, CIO at Educational Testing Service (ETS). “If you have a way that lets the business do something they couldn’t do otherwise, they’re willing to listen.”

Just recently, Wakeman got the nod from his board to make some of ETS’s intellectual property assets available to the open-source community. “The idea is to allow it to grow into a more scalable and robust asset that we’ll be able to use to get away from processing assessments on paper,” he says.

Transforming the Business

Last but not least, today’s IT leaders are breaking cultural and managerial boundaries, embedding technical staffers into manufacturing, finance, customer service and other areas to not merely automate processes, but to also analyze, improve, revamp, and abandon or create them in the overall drive toward business agility.

Tom Hughes, a 2009 Premier 100 honoree and CIO at the U.S. Social Security Administration, sums it up succinctly: “Breakaway IT leadership is business-gutsy, business-savvy and always looks ahead.”

Breakaway leadership is also hard, and the hurdles are higher than ever. Major challenges now facing IT leaders include the dire state of the global economy, the increasing complexity and cost of technology, environmental and regulatory pressures, and the need to manage a diverse, multigenerational workforce.

Ironically, some of these same factors are catapulting IT to a position of renewed importance and respect within organizations.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” says Brian Lurie, 47, CIO at Stryker Orthopaedics. The recent economic downturn highlights the need for IT-enabled initiatives that cut costs and improve customer service — and thereby increase revenue and profits, he says.

There’s no question that the potential payoffs of such leadership are enormous. Consider Mike Baker, managing director of Chicago-based Citadel Investment Group. At 43, Baker has already led a ground-breaking initiative to convert 1,500 PCs into a private computing cloud that can perform more than 8 billion computations for complex analytical tasks such as evaluating all mortgages in the U.S.

Building a data center to handle such tasks would have been cost- and space-prohibitive.

By designing the computing grid from desktops — which were not 100per cent utilized — and breaking down large jobs into smaller tasks that could be run across the grid, Baker and his team have made available huge amounts of computing capacity without increasing power and cooling needs. They’re also saving the trading firm millions of dollars in racks and racks of new servers.

In the same 12-month period, Baker led an effort to decommission and sell off all of the copper cabling in Citadel’s data center, replacing it with 10 Gigabit fiber. The team also implemented VMware systems to virtualize 70per cent of the servers in the data center, reducing both energy consumption and computing costs.

As a trading firm, “everything we do is about performance,” Baker says. “There’s nothing that Citadel does that doesn’t have a performance implication. We look at things in millisecond time frames. We’re very focused on the performance aspect of technology. That’s the culture.”

Yet make no mistake – Citadel’s IT professionals also know the trading business inside and out, Baker says. “If you go to a Citadel trading floor, it’s difficult to figure out who the IT person is and who the trader is. In our culture, technology is deeply integrated with the business.”

Mapping the Business

Deep knowledge of the business, its processes and its day-to-day operations is absolutely critical in order for IT to fully leverage technology and provide real business value, say the 2009 Premier 100 IT Leaders.

Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the manufacturing industry, where “if you can squeeze even a fraction higher yield or faster throughput, it has a large impact,” says Sam Coursen, 58, CIO at $5.7 billion Freescale Semiconductor in Austin.

Freescale’s award-winning, multiyear Advanced Intelligence Manufacturing (AIM) program, which involves tightly integrating business and manufacturing data, has already contributed more than $38 million to the chip maker’s gross margin.

The innovation imperative

Expect the unexpected from Jay Srini, chief innovation officer at UPMC Health Plan Inc.

“In health care,” she says, “you need to have breakaway ideas because the current way of doing things is untenable.”

As Srini sees it, one of the biggest problems in the field today is that financial reimbursements to hospitals and other providers simply aren’t enough to support ongoing high-quality research. This, in turn, impedes advances in health care overall.
UPMC is addressing the issue with a variety of IT-enabled initiatives.

“We are taking our knowledge and experience in implementing electronic medical records and leveraging that to generate revenue,” Srini says.

Earlier this year, UPMC and Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals, a National Health System Foundation Trust in the U.K., announced a partnership to deploy electronic health record technology at Newcastle’s hospitals. UPMC and Newcastle have also formed a joint venture to provide IT services to other U.K. hospital trusts.

Another commercial venture involves working with researchers from Intel Corp., the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University to develop and market computer-aided tools for health diagnoses.

“In my current role as chief innovation officer, my goal is to drive innovation through multidisciplinary collaboration and use technology as the substrate and catalyst for the dynamic transformation of health care,” Srini says.

Currently, one of her organization’s top priorities is finding new ways to reach out to health care consumers. “A very interesting piece [of that initiative] is how we can use technologies such as social networking to reach out to people and to transform the way we deliver health care information,” she says.

In addition to adopting more conventional portals for physicians and members, UPMC intends to “radically transform” how it engages its consumers by using Web 2.0 technologies such as social networks, Srini says. The goal is to make the tools available on the Web and via handheld devices.

Srini says she firmly believes that achieving such a transformation requires the knowledge and experience of everyone. “You have to go across disciplines and find talent,” she says. “All of our leaders, from marketing to IT and finance, have a different perspective in terms of management and leadership. We try to find unique ways to leverage that for competitive advantage. You need to go across disciplines and put all of these talents together to gain an intellectual advantage and innovation.”

What stymies innovation, Srini says, is failing to listen to dissenters. “A lot of new ideas come from partnering with others and new people coming in. Let knowledge come from anywhere,” she advises.

Now, Freescale is in the midst of an enterprise business intelligence program in which manufacturing and supply chain data from multiple plants and other design and engineering locations is collected into a single central repository.

“Typically, you’d find a lot of data being kept about each plant, and then you could optimize operations at that one plant,” Coursen explains. What Freescale is doing is centralizing data from seven manufacturing sites in the U.S., Europe and Japan; consolidating assembly and test sites in Malaysia and China; and combining major R&D, design and support centers across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

“We now have visibility of a single product through the entire flow,” Coursen says. As a result, manufacturing problems are spotted and resolved more quickly.

“The big change now is that we can see the product all the way through the process. We can track the yield from end to end,” Coursen

A critical prerequisite to the success of both the AIM and BI initiatives was a huge process-mapping project that essentially laid out, step by step, the company’s entire value chain. “We matched hundreds and hundreds of applications to that process map,” Coursen says. After that, IT champions were designated for each process group and directed to work side by side with the business owner of the same process group.

“It’s the joint expertise of IT experts and business experts that enables you to find and focus on the pain points,” Coursen says. “If you just go in with IT, you don’t have enough knowledge to know what will really change the game.”

Tapping Young Talent

In their drive to make businesses more collaborative, agile and responsive, IT leaders such as Jerome Oglesby, chief technology officer at Deloitte Services in Atlanta, say some of their strongest allies come from the growing ranks of Gen Y employees.

“Corporations have to figure out how to be more real-time,” and younger workers definitely have a real-time mentality, says Oglesby. “They don’t want to send an e-mail, then wait a day and get a response. IM, texting and videoconferencing are how they communicate.”

At Deloitte, “we have started focusing a lot on immediate-gratification tools and technologies that take advantage of [Gen Y’s innate real-time tendencies],” he says.

Deloitte has set up a social networking site called D Street, where employees can build and upload personalized Facebook-like pages. In its initial iteration, D Street contained structured templates that employees were supposed to fill in with required information. “We did it this way because of our old mentality of wanting to control the information that was being put out there,” Oglesby says.

Big mistake.

Younger workers largely ignored the system because what they wanted was a site where they could customize the look and feel of their information, photos and other content. “They told us loud and clear that they didn’t want to look like Deloitte. They wanted to look like themselves,” Oglesby says.

To its credit, Deloitte responded with a new version of D Street that includes blogs, wikis, support for RSS feeds and customization tools.

“Our CEO and our most senior leadership recognize that the future for us is Gen Y, women and minorities. We are making an active play for Gen Y, and technology is a big part of it,” Oglesby says.

In something of a twist on Oglesby’s Gen Y strategy, Vincent Melvin, 45, CIO at Arrow Electronics Inc., last summer chartered each member of his leadership team to hire and work with twentysomething interns.

“It was an interesting experience for all of us,” says Melvin. One of the things you notice is how those folks are driving the use of wikis and tool sets like YouTube and Facebook. It’s the way they go about their social life and their work life.”

Arrow is also using more Web-based technologies to create tighter links with its customers. Currently, under agreements with two suppliers, it can view inventory beyond its own warehouse and monitor the suppliers’ stock.

“Now we can see all inventory and can pull it proactively,” Melvin explains. “In some cases, we can add products to a sale, whereas before, we didn’t have the flexibility to do that quickly or efficiently.”

He says Arrow is looking to expand this kind of business and technology relationship across all of its suppliers, providing them with an array of SOA-based links they could use to quickly integrate their inventory data with Arrow’s systems.

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