Network connections

Getting together with your peers has never been more popular and is increasingly seen as an invaluable way for CIOs to gain insight into what is happening both in technology and in the industries they work in. At the same time there is a growing trend for vendors and consultants to try to reach CIOs through clubs and networking events. Unwilling to put up with direct visits from salesmen, impossible to phone and unlikely to respond to email, many suppliers are trying to engage with potential customers through sponsorship of events designed to bring CIO peers together.

Despite the Groucho Marx saying: “I would never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member,” CIOs are finding that belonging to a good peer networking club can be very beneficial, both for their organisation and their own personal development.

“Networking does suffer from the law of diminishing returns but it is a good way to stay current and find out what is challenging your peers,” says Neil Cameron, global CIO of Unilever. “You may find you are not the only one worried about something or that you should be worried about something you hadn’t considered before.

Byron Thomas, IS service delivery director, EMEA at Kraft Foods, agrees: “Networking is very useful for confirming thoughts and suspicions. There can develop a real trust in trying to figure it all out. I go to the FMCG IT Group every six months and it works really well.

Gaining insight

Several different tiers of CIO clubs and IT director networking organisations and events have emerged over the years and probably the best known of these currently is CIO-Connect.

“It allows CIOs to gain insights into the current business issues and the evolving role of the CIO through shared experiences,” says Nick Kirkland, who was appointed managing director CIO-Connect in April this year.

It was launched in 1998 and ran its first member conference in 2002. The following year it was acquired by the NCC. In 2004, special interest groups were created and the NCC also acquired Impact, which provides personal and professional development for CIOs and their core teams.

“IT directors understand and recognise the need to network,” says Kirkland. “Some CIOs use it for personal networking, but CIO-Connect additionally puts power into a combination of CIOs collectively, not just individually.”

Bob Barbiaux, IT director EMEA for Kimberley-Clark says CIO-Connect has been very useful to his company.

“When I originally asked about joining CIO-Connect, my company said it would pay for it as long as it wasn’t only about me,” he says. “Strategically the company has changed a lot on that recently. We used to be very inward looking but we are now externally focused because we have bought into the need for collaborative innovation. We can use other people’s good business ideas too; we have our eyes open and it makes good business sense to belong to a network.”

Networking needs to be done in an environment where there is clarity of trust and it is not competitive in order for it to be successful. “CIOs do have the same suppliers and the same issues and a general respect for each other,” says Kirkland.

Keeping afloat

The IT Directors Forum, an annual event run by Richmond Events and held on a ship has been running 12 years. Anne Chambers, project manager of the event, says of all the groups Richmond runs events for, IT directors relish this type of networking opportunity the most. “We put them together formally in meetings but also provide an informal atmosphere for networking. They generally find it invaluable,” she says.

“We offer a way for CIOs to find commonality and we are continually looking for different, improved ways to do it. We hold think tanks and seminars on board and people just get on with it. It is hugely important that IT issues can be talked about in an informal way. We are looking at expanding it, maybe offering blogs or some sort of online contact service.

The IT Directors Forum has always been about networking and giving suppliers an opportunity to meet customers but vendors and consultants, who are increasingly desperate to engage CIOs, are using networking events as a way of doing this.

“There is a trend for consultancies and vendors to try to reach CIOs through clubs,” says Darin Brumby, group IT director of FirstGroup. “The consultancies like Deliotte are looking at it from an advisory practise view, trying to understand the issues facing us and offering a series of topics to get CIOs together. It is to create dialogue and for the consultancies to find out what is going on.” Business transformation, risk, mergers and acquisitions are all hot topics that consultancies are trying to get a handle on, according to Brumby.

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“They are forming this club-type forum for discussion. The consultancies need to know what is going on. They are currently looking at some issues that are quite dated and they want to catch up, so they are using clubs as a way of engaging with CIOs.

Vendor sponsored events can be challenging. They want to give their sales pitch but on the whole, sponsorship works better, where vendors are in the background but not saying anything, he thinks. Brumby believes that any networking is good networking and says CIO-Connect is good because it has the backing of the NCC. “It has a lot of tentacles behind it and is pushed from the industry space,” he says. “But the personality of the network is important too – you never know if it is going to be useful unless you go. But you can try before you buy. Try different ones and see what suits you best.”

Fast moving

In some industries, CIOs have had to create their own groups. The fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) IT Group is about 15 years old and was born out of a CEO peer group that met to discuss the issues surrounding the FMCG industry.

Gerald Townsend who set up the FMCG IT Group says that a FMCG Finance Group emerged from the CEO group and then as IT began to have more bearing on corporate strategy, an IT group emerged from the Finance one.

“At first there was reluctance to let IT people get together,” he says. “Mainstream business didn’t really understand IT then and it was created quite separately from the other two.

There are 10 to 12 member companies in the FMCG IT Group and they have three objectives: to understand IT industry trends and how they can affect them; to consider customers and suppliers in the FMCG arena; and most importantly, to share information about problems and issues, so they can talk to others in confidence and get to the heart of things.

Gaining acceptance

“The last one is the most helpful,” says Townsend. “We try to avoid recruiting direct competitors and when a new member is proposed they have to be accepted by the others.” Meetings are very informal, late afternoon followed by a dinner with a guest speaker – it tries to avoid sales folk, using instead experts in their fields. Hot topics have included RFID and the group has also had major retailers in to talk about what they are doing. “It is a fairly low key but very useful group. Lots of our members belong to other organisations as well but the FMCG IT Group is a specialist group, which grew to meet a need,” says Townsend.

Another specialist but even more informal group emerged when Ian Cohen, CIO of Associated Newspapers joined The Financial Times as CTO from the financial services industry. “I have been part of Impact and the CIO panel and do try to do things for networking organisations,” he says. “But when I arrived in the media industry I found that there wasn’t an obvious network for heads of IT, so I just rang up my peers at the different papers and media players and got a little network together. It is very informal and takes place occasionally.”

Cohen believes networking can be very valuable. “For IT directors it can be a place to cry into each other’s spreadsheets and have a look at what works and what doesn’t. It can be very interesting. We all have the same problems with things like scalability, adoption and such, none of which are competitive. Whether I am talking to Siemens’ Gordon Lovell-Read or someone from my own industry, the common challenge is getting our act together.”

But for the most powerful personal networking, you have to be invited. There are business specific, private, invite only networking groups like the Chemistry Club and Aelous which facilitate monthly gatherings with Chatham House rules. These clubs can be inside corporate and industry sectors and often include highly successful achievers as members. Not a lot of internal business is discussed but they are very safe environments in which to talk and there is a connection between the people, with no hard sell.

For some, like Professor Peter Cochrane, chief executive of Concept Labs and a regular speaker at many peer group meetings like Silicon.com’s CIO Forum, CIO-Connect and the IT Director’s forum, peer networking is essential. “I’ve always felt that R&D was not a spectator sport, it is a contact sport, so I usually go to between 10 and 15 conferences a year and am asked to speak at even more,” he says. “Some people say it takes a lot of time to do this but I think it is a very worthwhile investment.”

Maximum benefit

Experienced networkers know how to get the most from events. “You get to know the people who have similar problems and over time you get to know them well,” says Unilever’s Cameron. “If you are in the right place, people often have common issues and you can learn a lot from that.”

Getting ideas from peers is the major benefit, according to Kimberly-Clark’s Barbiaux. “Networking makes us better connected,” he says. “We can get ideas from others and you get a lot from being part of a group. I mean you wouldn’t go to every single session but you always come away with something from the sessions you go to. It can be very reassuring to know that you are on the right track or even that you are ahead of others.”

Associated Newspapers’ Cohen, concludes: “There are lots of topics that are useful: leadership, next generation, different skills. And you can dip in now and again when you need to and have time,” he says. “It is more use than anything else and much more use than any analyst stuff. Don’t rely on them; go out to lunch with a peer instead.”