Visions: Founder of Paragon Development Systems advises technologists to “get out of IT”

Visions: Founder of Paragon Development Systems advises technologists to “get out of IT”

Editor’s note: Craig Schiefelbein, founder of Paragon Development Systems, has played the role of entrepreneur, board member, Chamber of Commerce chairman (Oconomowoc), and innovation advisor for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Now, with the release of “Get Out if IT While You Can,” he can add “author” to that list. WTN recently interviewed Schiefelbein about his cleverly titled book, which has advice for technologists of every rank.
WTN: Why is it so beneficial for a chief information officer or a chief technologist to get out of IT and see the bigger picture?

Craig Schiefelbein

Schiefelbein: First of all, I think many of them are already out of IT and seeing the bigger picture. This book wasn’t written just for leaders by title. Leadership must happen at every level to help the whole organization see the bigger picture, and this is a tool that CIOs can use while they are mentoring people in their IT organization.
For instance, Marshfield Clinic, Advocate Healthcare, and Agnesian are buying it for their IT team. It’s not just written for a CIO. The CIO typically gets it. It’s filled with exercises and examples so the people in the trench warfare of IT see the bigger picture.
WTN: You mentioned the point that everyone is a leader in some way.
Schiefelbein: I think for an IT organization to be successful, or for that matter any company to be agile and competitive in today’s marketplace, leadership must happen at all levels in the organization.
WTN: Is one of the reasons for a chief information officer to get out of IT so that they can understand the business better?
Schiefelbein: Absolutely. I think it’s to understand the purpose, the strategy, and the competitive landscape of the employer, and then what can they do to innovate and create a culture of agility to respond to those. It’s about helping drive the strategy to help the organization compete, all while creating a greater sense of purpose.
WTN: Can a chief technologist ever fully understand his or her role in driving organizational change without stepping out of IT?
Schiefelbein: Yes, I think so. I use this analogy of a guy driving down the road and he sees two guys digging a ditch. He asks them what they are doing, and the first one says, “I’m digging a ditch” and the second one says, “We are building a hospital.” So let’s look at that analogy for a second. The second guy is still digging a ditch, right? So he could still be in technology, but it doesn’t mean it would preclude him from seeing the bigger picture.
WTN: One of the common complaints of CEOs is that their technologists don’t have a good understanding of the business. From what you see in the business community as a whole, does upper management understand the business value of allowing IT directors to step out of IT?
Schiefelbein: For the most part, I believe they do. One of a number of catalysts for this book was the fact that I knew a CEO who was just hoping that his IT director could get out of IT and inspire people on how they are going to use IT to create a quality customer experience, or provide better decisional data, or help the organization compete, and the IT person couldn’t do it. He couldn’t see beyond having users up and running with good user satisfaction. While this is important, there are bankrupt companies that had just finished compiling the results of a successful user satisfaction survey.
For the most part, I think most business management wants to be inspired by those in IT on how they can apply technology to create better client experiences, better decisional data, eliminate waste, etcetera. But I think for a minority, that’s not the case. For instance, I did meet one individual last week who said he’s an IT director, he’s working on his MBA, and his business leadership said, “Well, why would you do that?” And he said “because the value of IT is in alignment to its strategy. Therefore, working on business acumen is a good thing.” And then he said they didn’t get it, but I think that’s a rare minority.
WTN: Of all the roles CIOs might have – whether it’s the function chief that keeps everything operating, the transformational leader, the innovation enabler, or the business strategist – which function should they devote most of their time to?
Schiefelbein: What are the things a CIO should be focusing on to be successful? I just think it depends on the organization. We have clients that are financially constrained that need to be in cost-reduction mode and all investments must have an almost immediate payback, and their priorities are very, very different than someone who has endowments backing them and an overabundance of finances to innovate with. So it really depends.
Ultimately, the business value of IT is aligned to the strategy of the organization. The answer depends on what is required to get their employer to the desired state.
WTN: Ideally, what role should the chief technologist play in contributing to a culture of constant innovation?
Schiefelbein: I would say they have a significant opportunity to and a responsibility to do it. I think technologists should understand what tools and infrastructure could be used to promote collaboration in their organizations. There are a lot of people in the organization that don’t know much beyond the white board as a tool for collaboration. Yet, there are things like SharePoint, things within Voice over IP, and different wireless collaboration tools that should be promoted or that should be created to help facilitate collaboration and innovation. So I think the ideas to build that culture should consistently be from the technology side.
Somebody once asked Henry Ford if he went out and sought input from people before building a car, and he said, “If I went out and sought input, I would have built a faster horse.” That’s because people don’t know what they don’t know, and I think it’s a chief technologist’s responsibility to help keep leadership apprised of what can be.
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