The decisions technology vendors make have a significant effect on the decision making and strategic directions CIOs take. Arguably, any product decision made by Microsoft has a greater effect on CIOs than any other vendor. So CIO UK sat down with Microsoft leaders to discuss where the operating system giant is heading.

Robert McDowell is vice president for the information worker and business value division of Microsoft, and he certainly enjoyed discussing the second half of his job title when we caught up with him at the global giant's recent international CIO conference. McDowell's team are tasked with helping Microsoft users maximise their use of the Office suite and working with CIOs on business problems.

McDowell is under no illusion as to the problems his clients face and expects them to push back on him and every other vendor. "The pressure points are a lot more intense," he says. But with 40 years of experience behind him both at Microsoft and Ernst & Young, McDowell backs business leaders and is concerned about the baying noise of the crowd that has become convinced all businessmen are out of control. "Most business leaders are passionate and do what they are doing in the right way," he defends.

As the banks collapse around our ears, McDowell is a lone voice. He is pumped up and excited when he sits down to talk and believes the credit crisis is a great opportunity for the technology sector. "The issue today is about business value," he says. "The opportunity is better for our industry."

McDowell thinks that now really is the time for the technology community -- both suppliers and enterprise leaders -- to prove the true value of IT, something he feels the sector has failed to do so far, despite the massive transformations and budgets that have circulated over the last two or three decades:

"The industry is so young and it has been silly until now, concentrating on silly things like office automation. I mean, the paperless office... it's about as useful as the paperless bathroom," he quips.

Proving the value of IT will require a wholesale change in how vendors approach CIOs, according to the American. "We now need to slow down. The demonstrations no longer matter, it's about value. With the CIO's help, we want to get to the CEO, as we need to spend time with them. The challenge [for sales people] is not getting in the door; it's what to say after hello."

McDowell says he takes inspiration from HP, which has been successful in becoming a trusted advisor to CIOs, something he believes all vendors are going to have to adopt. "CIOs are expecting us to come in and guide them to using technology."

Despite a worsening market, there are still technologies that are sparking some interest from CIOs and it is no mistake that they are the technologies that can not only provide business innovation, but also reduce costs. Number one, according to McDowell is unified communications.

"If you don't look at this technology, as well as business intelligence, it is financially irresponsible. It is powerful stuff." McDowell believes the technology is stumbling, not because of any technical failings, but because of organisational politics. But McDowell believes organisations can draw value from it. "It allows organisations to seriously question the value of attending meetings." The technology allows organisations to reduce their travel costs, which in turn reduces their carbon footprint, a double bonus.

McDowell has, as you'd expect, already introduced the technology into his division. A marketing group within his global division used to hold a conference every year, this year it held a virtual conference with 750 people attending, none of whom had to travel. McDowell claims the virtual conference saved his department $98 million. "The few meetings that we do have are richer meetings," he says.

Keen to avoid over-selling his own use of own product, McDowell said oil firm Shell has also become a major adopter of unified communications. Microsoft is in a strong position to drive the adoption of unified communications. "I bet everyone is already and owner of the technology required, Office and SQL Server."

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) will be instrumental in the change from software seller to service provider he says. "It's technology and a business model. Your next sale is dependent on the job you've done. There is no question that SaaS is the real deal.

"SaaS is very healthy, it means interactions with you every day. I think that is healthier, it is then expected that you will improve the service," he says. "The communications sector is already a trusted advisor."