'The nerds are going to tell me how to make money?'

I think I choked.

I was the senior IT manager in a meeting called by the CEO of the leaders of our various lines of business. Since his arrival, this CEO had shown himself to be a visionary. He had made IT his focus, directing us to fix broken and outdated financial and operational support systems. Now, high above Manhattan, he laid out his plans for where to go from there. IT would again be central, but in a role entirely new to it. That's where I choked.

The CEO began by reviewing our progress. Costs were down, and customer service was showing improvement. All well and good, he said, but now we needed to turn our attention in another direction, urgently. With costs already cut, it was time to turn our attention to increasing revenue. "I called this meeting because I've decided that IT must take the initiative and lead this new effort from now on, and I wanted you to prepare yourselves accordingly."

IT would lead a drive to increase revenue? Nothing in my experience had prepared me for a statement like that, much less the reality of leading such an effort. But the CEO was continuing, explaining that a company whose main product was information had to develop electronic means of delivering that product if it was going to survive. Unfortunately, he said, the company's business leaders "just aren't aware of what's going on in technology. So how can they be expected to exploit it to increase their revenue?"

He finished by laying down a clear challenge to IT: Give him a plan whereby IT would collaborate with each line of business to develop new, profitable electronically based products over the next year. "Just tell me what you need," he said in closing.

Later, alone in my car while driving back to my office in the suburbs, I was in mental turmoil. I wasn't too bad at planning, building or running IT systems and services, but I'd never done a full business plan, and I honestly didn't know in detail how each line of business that used my services made money. And I was supposed to know what their clients would want in the future?

I eventually calmed down when it dawned on me that the CEO's challenge was exactly what the IT team needed in order for it to be a powerful ally and involved partner. This was going to take a lot of work, sure, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw that we would learn a great deal. And some of it might even be fun.

Learn we did, and the first lesson for me (see box) concerned what constitutes real leadership.

We're in charge

After some fits and starts, the CEO created a new product development group (PDG) made up of key marketing and sales professionals from each line of business in the corporation, as well as myself and a senior strategy director.

We would write our own charter, the CEO told us. Before he parted, he added, "I need your charter and plan of action in two weeks."

A deadline like that can really give you focus. We didn't ramble much, and the resulting PDG charter was simple. Each line of business would identify three new electronically based products or services within the next six months, and those that won approval for development would be in the marketplace within 12 months. Working together on that charter delivered my second lesson. (See box.)

Next, we came up with three questions that would help us identify potential electronically based products:

1. Is it real? Is the market real? Is there a need for the product or service? Is there a clear idea for the product or service? Can it be provided? Will customers buy it?

2. Can we win? Can our offering be competitive in its features, promotion, price and timing? Can our company be competitive in its marketing, sales and management?

3. Is it worth it? Will it be profitable? Can we afford it? Is the return/risk acceptable? Does it satisfy other needs or build other relationships useful to our future?

Oversimplified, sure, but we figured that if we couldn't answer the questions a stockholder would ask, we'd never get any of our ideas funded for development, much less assure that they would be successful in the marketplace. We also reasoned that our credibility would be very short-lived if we didn't have these answers nailed down. (See box for Lesson No. 3.)

Raising awareness

That brought us to the hard part: getting each line of business to the point where it would consider creating and trying to develop new electronically based products. Someone in the group pointed out that people will never try something new if they aren't aware of it in the first place.

With that thought in mind, we set out to understand each line of business's customer acquisition and retention cycles and then to inform the business managers about how IT could help them avoid cost, improve service and increase revenue. We had expected it to be tough to educate them about the possibilities of electronic delivery of information products, since they were pretty much clueless about technology. But we were helped out when our competition began to bring out such products. With no prompting from us, the business managers were saying things like, "If they can do that, why can't we?"

It wasn't long before we realized that in most cases the data, knowledge and wisdom embodied in our traditionally published products was already stored electronically. Repurposing this information was not technically difficult, and offering it electronically eventually became very profitable indeed.

As for the fun part? This challenging time had more than its share of pressure, but we all felt that we learned so much and felt so productive, it was well worth it. Not least of what we gained was the realization by both business managers and the IT community that by combining forces we could achieve much more than if we approached our objectives separately.

So, after nearly choking at the prospect of getting in over my head, I had one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. That, of course, is no mere coincidence.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

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