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CIOs struggle with the great talent hunt

Stephanie Overby | May 2, 2013
Finding IT pros with business skills has always been a bear. So award-winning CIOs are taking radical steps to train, recruit or grow the hybrid staff they covet.

One problem Smoley often encounters, however, is overestimating the technical capabilities of business people. "While one doesn't really need to be a technologist in these roles, there is a need to understand how to break a project down into work tasks and dependencies [and] assess technical risk," he says. "Without that capability, a project can go into the ditch quickly." He needs staffers who have enough technical knowledge to stay out of danger and who are willing to seek assistance when things get hairy. Smoley encourages his business-minded folks to spend plenty of time with technologists inside and outside the company--suppliers, partners and peers.

Talking to Aunt Linda

At the DoD, Takai's lieutenants excel at highly technical projects, but she reminds them that their technical solutions are only as good as their ability to communicate them to senior defense leaders. "I tell them you have to use Aunt Linda language," she says. "How would you explain this to your mother, assuming she's no expert. Or your neighbor?"

She's always peppering her direct reports with questions about their projects--not the technical details of the programs, but their intended results. It's to help her prepare for meetings with department secretaries and undersecretaries. But it drives home the point that it's business outcomes that matter.

"I try to take them to meetings whenever I can so they can see the dynamics themselves," Takai says. Sometimes that's enough. In other cases, Takai will identify expert explainers to emulate.

At SquareTwo Financial, it took time for IT employees to get comfortable with business discussions. "It's difficult for a developer to stand up say, 'I'm going to show you what my product does and do it in a way that a business person can understand it.' Not, 'Hey, I wrote this code this way and here are my SQL statements,' but, 'Here's the business value of why I designed this the way I did,'" Weeks says.

When Musunuru was interim CIO at Gaylord Entertainment, he says he found it valuable to be paired with subject-matter experts, which gave him not only more domain expertise but also a deeper understanding of how technology solutions could affect the organization--for better or for worse. "They trained me in assessing whether specific initiatives and IT processes are a net value addition or subtraction to the broader organization," he says. The engineer who once solved problems in a vacuum evolved into a collaborator.

Shortly after joining Gaylord, Musunuru partnered with business executives to understand their growth imperatives and the operational challenges causing customer satisfaction issues.

He formed a cross-functional team to map the customer journey and develop solutions to improve customer experience, including the implementation of a Web-based booking engine to optimize the reservations process, a cloud-based call-center-optimization solution that improved conversion rates while reducing operating costs, and a campaign-management system that transformed marketing operations.


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