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Published: December 13, 2010

 
 

Helping the CIO Lead

Charlie Feld, the former CIO of Frito-Lay and a pioneer in his field, explains how IT can play a key role in developing corporate strategy.

Charles (“Charlie”) Feld began his career in information technology leadership at IBM in 1966, back in the days of the mainframe and whirring tape drives, when IT was separated from the rest of the business by the proverbial glass wall. Since then, he has seen vast changes in both the technology that underpins how businesses operate and in how IT and its relationship with the business are managed. He has contributed greatly to those changes, most notably as CIO of Frito-Lay Inc. in the 1980s, where he pioneered the use of wireless handheld devices that enabled delivery people to constantly update sales figures from the road. Today, he is a leading advocate of the evolution of IT from a provider of services to an enabler of overall strategy, especially when innovative uses of technology can transform the way a business operates.

Following his work at Frito-Lay, Feld developed a general framework for IT-enabled business transformation. This led to his founding of a consultancy called the Feld Group in 1992 (it was subsequently purchased by EDS in 2004, became part of Hewlett-Packard Company in 2008, and is now independent again). That framework, and its related management techniques, has been the basis of his approach ever since, and it forms the basis of his new book, Blind Spot: A Leader’s Guide to IT-Enabled Business Transformation (Olive Press, 2010). The Feld Group’s research arm, called the Center for IT Leadership, has championed a strategic role for IT in business transformation, and the role of the CIO as a leader in that transformation. This view of IT leadership is validated by experience at companies as diverse as BNSF Railway, Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, WellPoint, and CBS.

Feld’s ideas have particular resonance today. As computing infrastructure and interface design continue to evolve, it is crucial for IT leaders to find a viable pattern for strong leadership, to build their own leadership capabilities, and ultimately, to ensure that their specialized knowledge is integrated with real-world experience in multiple aspects of the business.

Feld recently sat down with strategy+business to discuss a wide-ranging set of topics, including his transformation framework, the proper career path for CIOs, and how to encourage top executives to mentor the leaders of the future.

S+B: What was your purpose in writing Blind Spot?
FELD:
My goal was to reenergize the dialogue around the strategic role of the chief information officer. I wanted to help CIOs and their counterparts throughout the executive team who are currently working on IT-enabled transformations. And I wanted to continue my contribution to the creation of the next generation of IT leaders. I believe that IT leadership will be one of the most exciting and critical corporate roles of the next 20 years.

Companies have tried taking their best technicians and putting them in charge of IT. That has worked, but only in some cases. They’ve also tried taking the best business executives and putting them in charge, and that has been spotty, at best. There is no simple solution. World-class CIOs must excel at the intersection of business and IT. In other words, they must become true renaissance leaders.

Many executives are beginning to develop a passion for this intersection. However, there’s no generally accepted framework in business and IT for learning, assessing, and measuring IT results, as there are in professions such as engineering, manufacturing, and finance. The CIO profession is still relatively new, and each individual learns on the job, through trial and error.

At the same time, technology has matured phenomenally over the last 50 years — much more rapidly than other functions. To go from wired boards to the kind of stuff we have now in just 50 years is spectacular. But the framework that businesses now need to harness, leverage, and manage this new type of IT — for communicating its potential, measuring its value, and making sure they get results — has not developed at the same pace at most companies.

 
 
 
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