The CIOs Speak

Of several panel discussions at Software 2007, only one of them had any real meat: a diverse group of CIOs talked about what they’re doing and what they look for.

The CIOs were Neil Cameron from Unilever, Rob Carter of FedEx, Patricia Morrison of Motorola (pictured) and Tony Scott of Walt Disney. The panel was chaired by Ernie von Simson, senior partner with Ostriker von Simson.

These notes are a mixture of verbatim comments and my attempts to distill a 45-minute panel into a short narrative, so don’t look at these as literal quotes. My favorite question here is the last one.

Question: What has your company implemented over the past year that’s really innovative?

FedEx: We have been deploying active RFID with environmental sensors, so packages can communicate when something happens, such as light (meaning the package was opened), vibration, temperature, or even GPS-based geopositioning. Now, a package can report if it’s been moved out of a secure perimeter, like a warehouse or campus. Today, we use active RFID for high-value shipments like jewels or data tapes, but use will expand in the future.

Motorola: The speed with which we can repeatedly deploy applications. We have cut the time it takes to roll a logistics or supply-chain application out to our partners from 4-6 months to 4-6 weeks. This is important because when we’re ready to do something new, the application deployment time often determines how fast Motorola can implement a new process.

Unilever: We leverage innovation that comes in from partners and suppliers. We keep using technology to improve how we collaborate internally, and how we collaborate with partners. When evaluating business technology that might improve the business, we don’t look at whether it’s standards-based or even how much it costs – instead, we look at the benefits, the payoff, from using it.

Disney: It’s the digitization of the business process, including theme parks, and television. For example, we now put some TV shows on the Web the day after they’re broadcast – and that’s a whole new business model. We don’t even view the shows the same way: there are fewer, longer commercials on a Web program than on TV, and we’ll even tell you how long the commercial break is and let you skip over it. So far, we find that more people stick around and watch a Web-based advertisement and remember it, than they do with traditional TV ads. However, advertisers still don’t consider Web ads to be as valuable as TV ads.

Question: How is your role as CIO changing?

FedEx: Nothing happens in isolation: We’re always looking for new things, but it’s never a complete departure from our core applications, like package tracking. We’re looking for new ways to gather data, and new ways to use the data we’ve gathered.

Motorola: You have to keep thinking about the customer. How do you use technology to facilitate what the customer needs? That’s true with all sorts of customers: consumers, carriers, governments and enterprises.

Disney: It changes in two ways, which are sometimes in conflict. First is innovation, and the other is privacy and compliance. We have to balance what’s new and innovative against what can protect our consumers and brand from harm. That’s particularly important because so many of our customers are children. Part of the role of the CIO is to adjudicate those conflicts, while also considering scalability and security.

Unilever: You have help your company move into new spaces, such as digital marketing, and partnering with other service departments like Human Resources. You also have to look at efficiencies at a higher level than strict economics: How do you become more competitive?

Question: Is there a single gripe that you have with enterprise software companies?

Disney: Drop the phrases, “We’re the world’s greatest” or “We’re the world’s leading,” and bring me an insertion strategy for your solution. Tell me how I can deploy your wonderful thing worldwide. Most software executives, especially from small companies, don’t have any ideas on how to get something started with a very large customer.

Motorola: We have 12,000 software engineers at Motorola, and all our code is warrantied and indemnified. What I buy from enterprise software companies, though, is full of bugs. You guys need to focus on quality. The enormous effort to patch and fix the software that we buy is simply unacceptable.

Unilever: Every time we add something new to our IT mix it can add tremendously to our costs. Selling me software is a relationship business, and there’s a lot of noise that gets in the way. You guys have to find ways to bring me new software that doesn’t add to our cost, and which doesn’t rip-and-replace what we already have. However, my biggest complaint is the amount of hype and noise, because we just don’t have the time to listen to it.

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Co-founder and editorial director of BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. Founder of SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference, AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference, and Big Data TechCon. Also president and principal analyst of Camden Associates, an IT consulting and analyst firm.