Eric Berridge

How to be a James Bond-style CIO

March 04, 2013 6:00 AM EST

In the age of tech-ubiquity, it’s easy for CIOs to bury themselves in tools and avoid the people they serve. However, the dangers of this are summed up nicely in this exchange from the recent James Bond film Skyfall:

Q: I hazard I can do more damage on my laptop in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.

Bond: Then why do you need me?

Q: Every now and then a trigger needs to be pulled.

Bond: Or not pulled -- it’s hard to know which in your pajamas.

To understand the need for CIOs to enter “the field,” consider the amazing change that’s occurred over the past few years thanks to cloud, mobile, social and other flexible technologies. In old school IT, you spent millions on a huge implementation and then tried to force everyone in the organization to fit their behavior to it. The CIO was like the mother who bought her kid a sweater that he hated and made him wear it because she spent too much for it to sit in his closet.

Now flexible technology makes it possible to fit technology to the behaviors of your users. When rolling out a platform, you shouldn’t have to do that much convincing to get departments onboard, because ideally you’ll have done your homework and created a solution that supports how they’re already operating. In this way, you become the mom who buys clothes her kids think are cool.

This, however, requires much more than an academic understanding of business departments’ challenges, goals and operations. It takes the kind of understanding that only comes to one who has “lived it.”

Go undercover
I’m not prescribing anything complicated -- just physically picking yourself up and spending time with other departments. Attend their meetings, go to lunch with their staff, rub shoulders, etc. As much as possible, go to the trenches with them. For example, I highly recommend occasionally riding along with sales reps -- you’ll learn more about the needs of your reps riding shotgun on one sales call than you will poring over a stack of trade magazines.

Here are a few tips to get the most out of going undercover:

Dispose of C-suite demeanor. While you of course don’t really want your users to think you’re someone other than who you actually are, you do want them to forget you’re C-suite. Remember, you’re looking for candid answers. If your solution sucks for a particular person’s job, you want them to feel comfortable telling you that. Remember, as CIO, you’ve got an advantage in that your mere presence isn’t necessarily imposing -- across the business, you’re typically viewed as pragmatic and independent.

Cross departmental lines with style. As Bond effortlessly goes from one exotic location to the next, so must the undercover CIO traverse departmental lines with ease. You accomplish this by doing your homework, and working on soft skills. The more you know about the department before infiltration, the more easily you’ll “blend in.” Likewise, if you’ve honed your interpersonal communication skills, you’ll much more fluidly build rapport with non-techie colleagues. Think of it as an exercise in breaking down business silos -- if you can do it physically, your IT department can do it virtually.

Once you’ve successfully embedded yourself, look for the following: 

Departmental operations. It’s human to enter a new environment with pre-conceived notions about what the daily grind is like. Now that you’re there, note how reality differs from those notions. How are they structured? What defines the culture? What does the typical employee spend most of their time doing?

Departmental challenges. Of course there are the stated challenges that you’re going to hear in the leadership meetings...but what are the things that you’re only hearing within the department?

Employee frustrations. Don’t just hang out with department heads -- go to front line employees because they’re going to tell you things you’ll never hear otherwise. Listen to the folks doing the heavy lifting and you’ll really learn something.

Customer frustrations. Your job now revolves around building a customer-centric experience. As you gauge departmental employees’ frustrations, consider them from the vantage point of the customer. When your marketer is on the phone with a customer and it takes three minutes to access information from accounting -- an eternity in customer service time -- how does that rub the customer?

For IT to work in today’s business landscape, it must be seriously shaken at its foundation, not just stirred at the surface. In an age in which customer relationships increasingly define success, CIOs can no longer rely on filtered reports. As “Interaction” replaces “Information”, the CIO will become less the custodian of information systems, and more the facilitator of a free-flow of information. This requires a much more personal approach, and a certain clarity that comes only to those who, to put it in spy parlance, operate “in the field.”