Senior IT executives now consider themselves very much business managers first and foremost, ahead of just being traditional IT experts and back room technicians.

The CIO Asia magazine survey found that most senior IT executives (about 51 percent) now believe that business management skills and understanding business processes are far more important than having technical proficiency (9 percent). Significantly, 29 percent of CIOs listed aligning IT and business goals among their top priorities.

This approach mirrors the enterprise management philosophy of Xavier Rambaud, the CIO of French specialty chemicals manufacturer Rhodia, who firmly believes IT has to be a business enabler.

Rhodia is an international chemical company partnered with major players in the automotive, tyre, electronics, perfume, health and beauty and home care markets. The Group employs about 16,000 people worldwide, and in 2006, generated sales of €4.8 (US$7.04) billion.

China growth

In November, the Group announced plans to build a second plant in the Chinese city of Qingdao, for the production of high performance silica. This compound is used in low rolling resistance tires that generate more than five percent fuel savings and reduce CO2 emissions from vehicles.

Rhodia also recently inaugurated its new 40 hectare Diphenols production plant at Zhenjiang, near the Yangtze River. Diphenols represent a key high-growth area in which the Group holds a strong market share.

Having been present in China for more than 30 years, Rhodia's operations there have grown over the last decade and they now employ 2,300 people.

When Rambaud first joined Rhodia, he was given the mandate to merge their worldwide IT functions. To successfully achieve this, he realized he had to first integrate Rhodia's disparate business processes. He found that there were at least 17 different software systems within the organisation. "I was not able to see, for instance, how many supplier files and customer files there were," admits Rambaud.

Rhodia core system

So, he turned his attention to standardising and consolidating Rhodia's business processes. Called the Rhodia Core System, the SAP -powered ERP solution aims to have 7,000 users worldwide by the end of 2008. The new system is intended to unify 60 processes, ranging from purchasing to plant maintenance. It will also feature dashboard reporting and forecasting, to give executives a clearer picture of the organisation.

According to Rambaud, up to 10 percent cost savings could be achieved, but the main payback comes from the improved performance of the processes. The standardised processes would give Rhodia executives worldwide realtime access to consistent data, allowing them to make reliable business decisions. In addition, the cost system is particularly helpful for the management in the Asia region, where Rhodia is fast growing.

"If you want your functions to go from where you are to world-class, you have to automate and standardise," Rambaud explains. "At the end of the day this means more IT."

Also high on this CIO's agenda is developing a perfect IT infrastructure for Rhodia. "If I come from my office in Lyon to the one in Singapore, I want the Wi-Fi connection to be seamless and efficient," he states.

By the end of next year, Rhodia will also be rolling out a new project called Wave, which Rambaud says, is a revamp of the organisation's telecommunications and network infrastructure. Similar to unified communications, but with many more features, the project aims to integrate communications such as fixed and mobile voice, email and messaging, into a single environment.

Global wi-fi

"So we will work from now till end of 2008 on this new structure," he says. "This is a major project that includes security, remote access and mobility. So if you are a Rhodia employee from Singapore travelling in Brazil, you'll use your cell phone, your Wi-Fi and work as if you were in Singapore."

This focus on ensuring that the group's internal users are kept very well serviced and satisfied, is very much in line with what came in as number two management priority in 2008 for CIOs in the State of the Asian CIO survey; improving internal customer (user) satisfaction. This was significantly ahead of controlling IT costs.

Rambaud also turned his attention to information security when he first took over. He realized that while Rhodia was capable, in terms of providing security for its people at work and the hazardous chemical products, the organisation's culture for information security was weak.

"We have made significant progress and I must say that a good booster was that we used to be listed on the New York stock market and Sarbanes-Oxley facilitated the increase of our internal controls, not only for IT."

Litigation motivation

Currently, he is looking to improve Rhodia's e-mail archiving practices and tools. "We found out that, in some litigation cases, we needed to come back to things which we agreed to in 2002, and we were missing some crucial e-mails. So we decided to improve retrieval and archival methods."

Rhodia is also focused on security awareness among its employees. One project the information systems department is working with human resources is the education of staff members on security.

"We have to change our passwords every three months or so," Rambaud points out.

"People who are not familiar with these concepts will be questioning its rationale. So it is about an awareness program for people to understand why such moves are necessary."