Now hear this: Savino DiPasquale, CIO, GlaxoSmithKline Inc.

GlaxoSmithKline's CIO says the new breed of IT specialist can also talk business strategy.

Techies are fixers — people who help others figure out why their computer screens are blank or the printer doesn’t work. Or so popular thinking goes. But Savino DiPasquale, chief information officer at GlaxoSmithKline Inc., tells Andy Holloway that’s changing. And a study he presented at the IT360 Conference & Expo earlier this year backs him up. Almost 85% of CIOs sit on the executive committee. Welcome to a new era of tech-oriented business strategists.

“The CIO position is moving from a functional role to more of a business role. As a CIO, you’re expected to run your function, but more importantly, hopefully, because of your insight, you can take on some transformational change projects to make the company more competitive and efficient and effective. Eventually, you get to dabble in other stuff. I’m seeing that trend toward dabbling a lot more with my colleagues at the CIO level. The CEO is going to say: Look, I’ve got this competent leader who runs their business, they run their function, they’ve helped put in some amazing change initiatives from a process and project approach, why wouldn’t I give them some more to do to make my business better and get them more plugged into the business?

We call it the Getting IT Factor. If you’re fortunate enough that your CEO gets IT — and ours does — then it’s a no-brainer to understand the interrelationship and the value-add that can be brought to the table. The T in IT is getting commoditized. Everybody knows how to buy a BlackBerry or an iPod, and they think they’re technologists. But that’s not what IT people were always thought to be above. It comes down to the I — information — and it’s the I that you want somebody there for. When you get that blend of business and IT right, it’s about using technology in a more effective way to drive better, faster decisions. It’s the insight and the approach that a CIO offers.

The more people you have at the CEO table who can help drive the business, the more successful the business will be. It’s not about making yourself busier; it’s about making strategic choices. I can choose to spend my time with more vendors or in more meetings or creating more projects within my function, or I can get rid of a portion of that lower-value work and shift my focus to more customer-facing activities.

The most important thing to me is that if you run a very aligned, efficient, effective operation, have a good strategic approach and good leadership, the CIO should be freed up to do other things. I’m a classic example. I basically put in great people, a clear strategy, a clear way to measure alignment to the business, so I don’t really spend my time worrying about availability and the numbers and the metrics. I trust good people to get that done. That frees me up to actually go out into the marketplace. The whole issue is that I can now take technology in my industry to doctors and stakeholders and say: How can technology make a difference to you? How can information make a difference to you? How can we provide better services in an effective way? It’s more about putting the energy of IT on the outside of their organization, more on our people to support the customer.

The converse of that is “stick to your knitting,” which some people still believe a CIO should do. But if you stick to your knitting, you start making up projects. You start creating things like refreshing the optical cables. All those things become a priority in the company instead of how can I build a website for your products, for our brand, to help educate patients. It’s a totally different shift, and I think you have no choice to take that IT leadership group and put them at least 50% into customer-focused land and not into naval gazing.

Let’s face it, there’s less people doing a helluva lot more these days. Everybody has two jobs. If we can make the workforce more productive in a big way, improve overall quality, lend support to global expansion, that’s a different kind of leader, and that’s the business strategist you want at the table saying, “Hang on a second, let’s look holistically at the marketplace, let’s go figure out how to do this.” That’s when you need your CIO at the table, because at the end of the day, if you’re talking about improving the supply chain, getting information about customers, you’re eventually going to have to build a web-based IT solution, an information-based solution.

The good CEOs are focused on strategy, but they’re also asking their VP of sales to focus on what they’re good at — selling. All the other stuff they’ve taken on, give it to somebody else. Other functional business heads on core competencies in sales, marketing and legal also have to focus to be efficient and effective at what they do. All the peripheral stuff they’ve picked up can be moved off.

A classic example is business intelligence. Every division does business intelligence: analytics, reporting, forecasting analysis. Why not make that a centre of excellence? Why not give that to the CIO and let the CIO run business intelligence. Everyone then gets a high level of service, there’s less repetition, and they can focus on their core business issue, which is what do they do with this intelligence, not how do they create a package, sort through it and create a report. On the surface, it looks like we’re coming into their world, but now that they’ve got the information they need, they say thanks for taking that off my back. I get the output, and I don’t have to worry about the input.

This kind of strategy works for any company that is trying to grow — more specifically, grow through innovation or new product offerings — any company that is trying to accelerate profit growth by re-engineering core business processes, any company that is trying to re-engage their workforce.

The CIO sees every process. A CIO’s job is probably the most unique position in the company. We see every process, every piece of software, the current and evolving needs, and we can ask some pretty insightful questions. We can say you’re making that too complex, we did something similar to that, and we can tune it and tweak it and get you there.

You have to get through this through the people who own the stakeholder relationship, and you’re there as a value-add opportunity. Or you’re going out with the CFO who runs the logistics piece. It’s still business-led in many cases. You clearly go in as an enabler, someone who can enrich the dialogue, and it’s amazing how many customers will elaborate on a need that you can actually say we have capabilities in that space and we can help you turn that around to get there.

For example, we have invested heavily in electronic forms in our company over the past 10 years. Traditionally, pharma has been a paper-driven industry. We provide zero training for our e-form solution. It’s that intuitive; it’s that elegant. There’s no classroom training, no online training. Anyone should be able to come on and use it. And that just comes from years of common sense about how this stuff should work. When I look at something or want to test something, I never ask for the training manual. If I need a training manual, it’s too complex.

It is a good thing to get CIOs more engaged in the business, to understand the market, to understand customers, to build a more commercially oriented organization. That is the thrust of a leading CIO. You won’t do it in one bite, but on that journey you will just add way more value not only as an IT professional, but also as a business person at the table. It’s common sense, but more people need to do that.”