When Times Are Tough, Companies Must Stay Focused

Dennis Jones has played many roles in his IT career--CIO, business manager, and now executive at an IT vendor. The president of business-to-business software maker Commerce One Inc. spent 25 years guiding IT investment at FedEx. He also spent a year leading investment firm Accel-KKR, helping traditional companies create E-business ventures, before joining Commerce One. Jones recently exchanged E-mail with senior writer Marianne Kolbasuk McGee to share his thoughts on IT leadership in the current economy.

InformationWeek: What are the key leadership challenges faced by IT managers today vs. 12 to 18 months ago?

Jones: The primary leadership challenge is always focus. Positive markets tend to hide mistakes or lack of focus in an organization. But especially now, when every penny counts, staying focused on the right projects is key. Managers must choose projects carefully, understand their goals, and then deliver. If you want to accomplish big things, you have to stay committed to goals. You need more than a running start to climb Mount Everest.

InformationWeek: What sort of skills must IT leaders tap to deal with these challenges?

Jones: Underneath all the current market turmoil is a more important shift, one that's vital for both corporate leaders and IT leaders to understand. Business is going to be on the Internet, and if companies think browsers, intranets, and E-mail are the extent of that transition, they're mistaken. It may sound trite, but the Internet will still change almost every part of how we do business.

Covisint, for example, is powering auctions for auto parts for companies like DaimlerChrysler. On the one hand, they're looking for immediate ROI. On the other, DaimlerChrysler is looking at completely re-architecting its processes for working with suppliers. There's huge potential for new savings, business opportunities, and innovation in those processes; companies that don't undertake these kinds of sophisticated initiatives today will lose out on the learning and knowledge their competitors are gaining. It will be a big deal.

InformationWeek: How can IT leaders keep staff motivated and focused when business priorities have changed so dramatically and projects are put on hold?

Jones: Again, focus is key. If staff members have an understanding of corporate objectives and how their skills and work product contribute, they stay motivated. That means managers have to take an even more proactive approach with their people, communicating goals, objectives, and expectations.

InformationWeek: How do a CIO's dealings with the CEO or other business execs change in a downturn?

Jones: Tough market conditions separate the real ideas and the real companies from the pretenders. They also provide an opportunity to build the team for the next round. The best companies and the best IT departments know that. In tough times, the CIO's job is to continue to build the team and the resources for the next phase of the company's growth. In many cases, the CIO can become the catalyst for that next phase.

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