Forget IT-business alignment — it's all about fusion now, CIOs say

Activist IT execs get a say on setting business strategies and driving internal changes

ORLANDO — Forget about mere IT-business alignment. At many companies, the new name of the game is melding technology and business operations, with CIOs getting a say in setting not only IT plans but business strategies as well.

For example, when Anthony Hill was asked to lead an e-business initiative at Golden Gate University several years ago, what the San Francisco-based school's academic leaders actually wanted him to do was transform the way it operated along business-to-consumer lines, he said this week at Computerworld's annual Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference.

Instead of the IT department simply supporting business operations, "we now talk about how IT gets in front of the business" and drives it into new ways of doing things, said Hill, who is Golden Gate's CIO.

"IT should no longer be viewed as just an enabler of somebody else's business strategy," he added. "We need to change the dialogue to really eliminate the lines between IT and the business."

Peter Walton, CIO at Hess Corp., has literally altered the dialogue at the New York-based petroleum products company by banning IT staffers from referring to its business units as customers or even users. Instead, Walton said he wants his team to treat their fellow employees simply as "company-mates and peers." He even tries to avoid using the word alignment internally. It goes deeper than that now, he said: "We're trying to fuse with the business."

That's all part of an effort to stop business executives from "just seeing us as technology service providers," Walton said. "I just absolutely hate being treated like that when we can provide so much to the company." His goal, he added, is for IT to be viewed no differently than the finance and human resources departments are within Hess.

And the strategy is getting results, according to Walton, who plans to retire from Hess next month. He said that as part of a new organizational structure being adopted by the company, the CIO's office will become responsible for managing some core business functions.

In addition, Hess is creating a joint IT and business group that will work outside of its day-to-day operations to develop new operating processes and advanced technologies. That unit will combine some of the company's top technical thinkers with geologists, scientists and other workers and report to the head of oil exploration and production, Walton said.

Hill and Walton are part of a growing class of IT leaders who are positioning themselves as activist CIOs within their organizations and working directly with other top executives to influence strategic directions, suggest changes in internal business processes and even lead initiatives that aren't strictly technology projects.

Richard Fox, vice president of IT at PHH Mortgage in Mount Laurel, N.J., has spent the past seven years working side-by-side with the PHH Corp. subsidiary's sales organization. Fox said that has helped him to build a rapport with sales executives and develop the kind of credibility needed for him to take the lead on business improvement opportunities.

For example, he pointed to discussions that he and the sales team are having about potentially changing some of the company's mortgage application processes. "It's absolutely about being proactive," Fox said, "and saying to your business peers, 'I know what your pain points are. Have you ever considered trying this approach?'"

Enzo Micali, CIO at TNS North America in New York, has a similar outlook on working with business units. "I think we really need to challenge the way things have always been done and ask why they're being done that way, and is there a more efficient way," he said. That approach has worked well for Micali from a professional standpoint: Last month, he was put in charge of all operations at the U.S. subsidiary of market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC.

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