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Leaving the toolkit, bringing the briefcase

The role of the CIO has changed: instead of talking about technology when they get into a room together, IT chiefs discuss business.

The role of the CIO has changed: instead of talking about technology when they get into a room together, IT chiefs discuss business.

Leighton Contractors CIO Diane Fernley-Jones laughs with her counterpart at Boral, Greg Palmer, about how much effort it must take to administer Boral's extensive truck fleet. Veda Advantage CIO Tony Kesby talks about the financial services industry and how legislation may shortly free up the amount of information his company can provide to its customers — major lenders.

Fernley-Jones says if she looks back on her career, for many years the team she worked in was seen as "the guys in the back" who "turned the handle" on the systems keeping her company's general ledger up to date. "We were not really seen as integral to the business," she says, but those days are gone.

Today, Fernley-Jones says other executives in her business are coming to her and asking to work directly with the CIO to help streamline business processes and push positive change. "We've got to do things smarter," she says. "We cannot take a business model we were using 10 years ago and use it moving forward."

It's the same situation with Kesby, who says traditionally the CIO role has been seen in the industry more as the "head of IT" rather than as a general executive role in the business. Now, he says, there is a definite alignment between CEOs and CIOs in businesses, with a business focus permeating throughout IT departments.

"IT people are increasingly leaving the toolkit at home and bringing the briefcase," he says.

This alignment of IT and the business's primary mission is clearly having an impact. Palmer notes that in Boral, the company's IT team has been able to improve the safety of its trucks by using technology to track every vehicle in its fleet on its journeys, logging how long they've been on the road and when they stopped.

The efficiency of the fleet has also been boosted. For example, as soon as a truck unloads its cargo, it sends a signal back to head office so that time isn't wasted between jobs.

IBM has recently conducted a study involving executives around the world, which the company's strategy and change leader, Matt English, says showed this change in action.

And although the trend isn't new, English says that the study does show how far attitudes have come.

"I think you could almost look at this as a coming of age," says English. "I don't think we've particularly seen the closeness of alignment [before] that we've seen in this particular study."

Going back to a similar study in 1997, the IBM executive notes that chief executives were quite divorced from the IT priorities of their businesses.

Much of the change is coming from the recognition from all parts of business of how technology is changing every aspect of how modern work is conducted — from the way we communicate in the workplace, to the way business processes take place and even hiring practices.

Fernley-Jones says that Leighton Contractors has realised that more investment needs to be made on IT.

"It isn't just turning the handle and keeping the lights on, which perhaps is the way we were looking at it inside Leighton Contractors 10 years ago," she says.

However, all three CIOs in the room agreed that the IT executives have to earn the business' trust before becoming a part of the group making the big decisions.

According to Fernley-Jones, going back four to five years, she often received inquiries from her business about problems with its help desk, or about communications links being down. CIOs need to build stability, credibility and trust, she says. Larger conversations can come after the basics have been worked out.

Boral's Palmer agrees, noting that it's an evolutionary process. An issue in his business had been getting data links and applications to perform, he says, adding that his team kicked off an internal campaign to bolster its systems and get things back on track. Other issues have included focusing on keeping new systems vanilla as they're rolled out, to ease later changes, setting up best practices in enterprise resource management and more.

"We had a two-pronged strategy of what we called front-line effectiveness and transactional efficiency," the CIO says.

Yet while the role of the Australian chief information officer is becoming more aligned with the business than previously, there are some things that never change.

"We used to get hammered a lot for using three-letter acronyms in IT — now we solved that as we're using five," Kesby jokes. "CLOUD".