Power Lunch

For a group of Atlanta CIOs, informal lunch meetings have evolved into something that's of compelling value for themselves, their companies and their community. By Gary H. Anthes

Every other month in Atlanta, one of the most powerful groups of IT managers anywhere meets over lunch. But you won't find this organization in the telephone book or in any other directory of IT movers and shakers. In fact, it doesn't even have a name.

At a typical meeting, members of the ad hoc group -- CIOs at 15 of Georgia's largest companies -- recount their experiences with IT products, share horror stories about information security, offer tips on recruiting and hiring, compare strategies for regulatory compliance and reveal their secrets for vendor management.

They also plan their next project on behalf of a local charity. Last year, the CIOs contributed several hundred IT workers to build a house with Habitat for Humanity International Inc., teamed up to form a pro bono technology steering committee for the new Georgia Aquarium and helped put on a charity fund-raising gala called the Digital Ball.

"We call it 'group therapy,'" says Marian Lucia, a member of the lunch bunch and CIO at Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta. "It's not orchestrated. It's not sponsored by a vendor. It's ours."

The bimonthly meetings have no preset agenda; attendees just offer what's on their minds. "We've covered everything from Sarbanes-Oxley to what people did during Hurricane Katrina, our challenges around searching for talent, outsourcing, H-1B visas, organizational structures, how we manage compliance functions and our relationships with our CFOs," Lucia says. "I always come away with something."

For example, Lucia says, she took comfort and direction from noting that many of her peers had to hire more people in order to meet Sarbanes-Oxley Act requirements. "Before, I was feeling the pressure to have a compliance function within IT, but this gave me the validation," she says.

Although group members come from diverse industries, "the issues we all face are very much the same," says Becky Blalock, a Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader who was a co-founder of the group and is CIO at Southern Co., a $12 billion Southeastern energy company. "The last time we met, at Coke, we talked about disaster recovery because just about all of us had been impacted by Hurricane Katrina," she says. "I showed some of the things that had worked very well for us."

Blalock told the group that immediately after the hurricane, the only way Southern could communicate was via its own SouthernLinc wireless network. One member of the group subsequently bought 100 SouthernLinc mobile telephones, she says.

According to Blalock, the group grew from an idea put to her two and a half years ago by Gregory Morrison, CIO at Cox Enterprises Inc. "He said, 'It would be nice if we could talk without any vendors present.' We had about five CIOs at the first lunch, and we had such a great time, we said, 'We need to continue doing this,'" Blalock says.

"I always come away from those meetings so inspired and motivated," she adds. "It's very powerful; when you go back and talk to your executives and try to convince them to do something, you can say, 'At every other company in this town, they are already doing this.'"

And the professional as well as personal relationships established at the lunch meetings carry into other realms, Morrison says. "We are a close-knit group and interact often," he says. "Several of us are affiliated with other IT groups and nonprofit organizations that extend our relationships even further."

While those other professional groups, such as the Georgia CIO Leadership Association, are larger and more formal, the nature of the ad hoc group gives it a unique feeling of camaraderie, its members say. "We feel safe to be open because there is no real competition," Lucia says. "We are very honest with each other, and we have gotten so we really care about each other."

"As CIOs, we can't walk out onto the floor of our organizations and share our pain in particular areas," says Larry Frey, CIO at BlueLinx Corp. "The CIO lunches are an opportunity for us to share some of the pain among the CIOs."

The group has no formal membership criteria, but it limits itself to a small number of the most senior IT executives -- those whose job it is to concentrate on long-term IT strategy. "As senior CIOs, we look three to five years out," says Fran Dramis, CIO at BellSouth Corp.

The CIOs also encourage intercompany collaboration among their more junior IT managers, who typically get together to discuss more-focused, tactical issues.

Some group members at a recent lunch: Marian Lucia, Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta; Gregory Morrison, Cox Enterprises; Kristin Kirkconnell, AGL Resources; James Dallas, Georgia-Pacific; Sandra Kearney, Goldkist; Dave Barnes, UPS; Larry Frey, BlueLinx; Becky Blalock, Southern Co.; Steve Winterbottom, Scientific-Atlanta; and Fran Dramis, BellSouth.

Some group members at a recent lunch: Marian Lucia, Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta; Gregory Morrison, Cox Enterprises; Kristin Kirkconnell, AGL Resources; James Dallas, Georgia-Pacific; Sandra Kearney, Goldkist; Dave Barnes, UPS; Larry Frey, BlueLinx; Becky Blalock, Southern Co.; Steve Winterbottom, Scientific-Atlanta; and Fran Dramis, BellSouth.

Image Credit: Lou Price

The House That IT Built

Although the CIO lunch group was formed two and a half years ago primarily as a way to share best practices in IT, a strong secondary mission soon emerged. "At pretty much every [lunch meeting] now, we do something for a not-for-profit," says John Seral, CIO at GE Energy. "We ask, 'Using technology, can we solve each others' problems as well as community problems?'"

For example, when the group decided to build a Habitat for Humanity house, "we went back and got $10,000 to $15,000 [from each member] for materials, and then we assigned project managers from each business's IT [unit]," Seral says. Several hundred IT workers from 10 companies built the house in seven working days.

Besides doing good, these philanthropic activities provide a way to get cross-company pollination of IT at a level below the CIO, Blalock says. "What was powerful about the Habitat house is that people on down the organizations got to know each other," she says. "The storage people got to know each other, for example, and they now get together to talk about what's working and not working on the storage front."

More recently, the group explored ways to assist Hurricane Katrina victims and came up with the idea of working with United Way of America to fortify its telephone system, which had been overloaded with calls after the disaster. BellSouth, for example, helped United Way set up a call center in Mississippi.

Two years ago, two senior executives from The Home Depot Inc. decided that the company would be a major sponsor of the new Georgia Aquarium, and they turned to Home Depot CIO Robert DeRodes for help with the IT aspects of the facility, such as ticketing and digital displays. "There was only so much I could do personally," DeRodes recalls. "The question was, how could I broaden my base of support?"

The answer came from his CIO lunch colleagues, who formed the Voluntary Technology Advisory Committee. "We offered advice and used equipment, we engaged vendors and used our collective leverage to get the aquarium favorable prices, and we helped them hire their CIO," says DeRodes.

The CIO volunteers' companies became a virtual pool of IT expertise for the aquarium, he says. "A [group] member would say, 'Let me take this issue; I have someone on my staff who's an expert in that space.'"

Community Culture

Atlanta has a special culture of community at several levels, the CIOs say. "I was in Washington and New York a lot when I was CIO at Solomon Bros. and Citibank and Bankers Trust," Dramis says. "What I found here was a really good collaborative spirit with people who loved the community and had a good sense of the company's importance to the community. There really is a genuine interest in sharing information and helping each other."

Dramis stops short of saying Atlanta is unique in this regard among U.S. cities, but he does say, "Atlanta is a big small city. The community and its companies are woven together."

Asked how the ad hoc CIO group ranks as a source of information compared with alternatives such as conferences, trade publications, consultants and research firms, Dramis says, "They are all valuable, but what's interesting about a group of local CIOs is that their information is relevant to the marketplace we are working in."

"There is no amount of consulting you could pay for that's worth that face time with your peers," Blalock adds.

Says longtime CIO Lucia, "It fills a niche I've never had the opportunity to fill before."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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