• United States



by Frank Demmler

The CIO as Intrapreneur

Apr 19, 20058 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security recently distributed an online questionnaire (.pdf file), asking CIOs to respond to a series of questions about their jobs and responsibilities. I reviewed it and was reminded of the scope of of the CIO position.

It also got me thinking about how any individual role had become what it was. Was the job description the determinant (The CIO will report to… The CIO will be responsible for&)? Did the person occupying the position define the role? Of course it’s not as simple as that, and the answer probably includes significant components of both.

What’s in a Title

Still, the apparent ambiguity did raise additional questions. Most executive positions are pretty clearly defined and generally understood – CEO, CFO, VP of Sales, Director of R&D. Each title is likely to conjure pretty consistent images.

I don’t think that’s true of CIO. In fact, do even you have a clear image of what the title C-I-O means? Is it the job you do? Is it the job that your predecessor did? Do you believe that you are equivalent to the CIOs of other organizations? Do you think about it?

Do your peers within your own organization understand who you are and what you do? Would their opinions be congruent with your own?

(As far as I’m concerned, VP of Business Development is another ambiguous title. So I’m not saying that this observation is unique to CIO. Still, this isn’t, so we needn’t pursue that particular line of thought.)

Myriad Questions Facing CIOs

Ambiguity notwithstanding, I am in awe of the many issues that CIOs are facing today. Technology continues to leap ahead. Paradigms shift. Supply chains collapse. Data increases. Budgets tighten.

Is enterprise software still relevant? Will Web services dominate the landscape in the near future? What, if anything, should be outsourced? Should legacy systems be maintained? Is open source good or bad? Will component reuse substantially reduce development time and provide better quality products? Should disparate databases be transferred to a data warehouse? If not, how can they be managed and used? Will the semantic Web become a reality? How much security is enough? Are the distinctions between communications and data transfer blurring?

Reaction Vs. Action

Your job is not clearly understood by others in your organization. You may even be confused sometimes.

Compounding this, whatever your job really is, it does include making many decisions about many issues in very short periods of time.

What do you do about it? If you’re like me, you probably go home and kick your dog [just kidding]. But I do bet that you often let urgency drive your actions, often without regard to importance. Heck, if you’ve got a crisis, you have to address it, don’t you? Your planning horizon is often hours in duration, and rarely longer than weeks. You seem to always be in reactive mode.

At best, you try to manage the resources that you control with the intent of optimizing the return on their investment.

What else could you do?

Become an intrapreneur!

Missed Opportunities

If you knew three years ago how things were going to be today, would you have done anything differently?

Perhaps more importantly, were there opportunities that you missed?

Most likely, you’ve answered, “yes,” to both questions, as would almost everyone.

But, you did do the best that you could under the circumstances, didn’t you? The day-to-day pressure of immediate needs preempt your ability to devote much attention to the future. When you’re up to your rump in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you’re in there to drain the swamp.

This is inevitable, isn’t it?

Not really.

What If..?

Let’s look at this situation through a different set of lenses.

How are things going to be three years from now? Who knows? If you could predict the future, you would already be retired. But the future isn’t merely things that happen to you. A large part of the future is what you make of it.

I’m not getting metaphysical on you here. As a practical manner, you and your team have the expertise and ability to create a vision of what you could be. You also have the ability to plot a strategy and action plan to get there.

What opportunities are going to emerge? Again, you can identify areas that can be exploited for enduring competitive advantage.

What’s that you say? You think this is contrary to what we agreed to before? There are only so many hours in a day… There are only so many fires that can be fought at once& There’s just isn’t enough time and resources to do this& This what you’re probably thinking.

This is where the intrapreneurs, those who act entrepreneurially within an organization, emerge.

Entrepreneurship Explained

OK, I’d better explain what I mean by entrepreneur.

An entrepreneur relentlessly pursues opportunities.

An entrepreneur gets, or gets access to, or borrows the resources to get the job done. This is an important point. An entrepreneur does not manage resources for optimal ROI. The entrepreneur pursues opportunities and figures out the resource part along the way.

An entrepreneur “sees” the future and thrives on the opportunity to shape it.

An entrepreneur does not consider himself a risk taker because he is confident that his vision of the future is accurate.

An entrepreneur leads his team to achieve more than they ever thought they could. The entrepreneur creates an environment in which everyone feels empowered to make their own decisions confident that each decision is in the overall best interests of the enterprise. Mistakes are badges of honor. Trying and failing is a good thing (as long as each mistake is only made once).

An entrepreneur and his team have fun! They feel pride. They share passion. They are creating the future. They can see it, smell it and taste it.

Intrapreneurship at Work

The frequency of medication errors in hospitals is a topic that receives a fair amount of press coverage today. Fifteen years ago, the statistics were even worse. The error rate was between 1 percent and 10 percent, with the average being 1.75 percent. Most of the errors were minor, 100 mg. of Tylenol instead of 50 mg., for example, but occasionally they were fatal.

Sean McDonald, my friend and entrepreneur, was an automation engineer by education and work experience. He learned that most hospitals in 1990 filled prescriptions by manually picking one pill at a time, typically between 12:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. A 400-bed hospital might pick and distribute 8,000 – 12,000 medications a day. A low percentage error rate still resulted in a meaningful number of errors.

Sean realized that this was an ideal application for automation. It was repetitive. It was very labor intensive. The combination of saving lives, improving patient care and reducing operating expenses was a trifecta he could use to build a company. He “saw” the future and became driven to create it. In 1990, Sean founded Automated Healthcare, Inc., in Pittsburgh, to address that problem.

He led his team in the creation of a robot system that integrated automation technology, bar codes, and existing hospital software to revolutionize drug distribution within hospitals. (By the way, for many hospitals, this was the first time bar codes had ever been used.)

Telescoping the company’s history, by 1996 his company was gaining significant commercial traction. McKesson Corporation, a multibillion drug wholesaler, acquired it for $65 million. Today McKesson Automation is a significant operating unit of McKesson Corporation, employing more than 1,200 people as compared to 62 at the time of the acquisition. The current product line was largely conceived during its days as an entrepreneurial enterprise. Hundreds of hospitals, and countless patients, have benefited from Sean’s inspiration.

Consider some of the following traits that Sean displayed:

  • Sean recognized an opportunity and exploited it passionately;
  • Sean envisioned a future and created it;
  • Sean’s innovation was a unique integration of existing technologies, not a radical technological invention;
  • Sean’s team was inspired to do what others would have considered impossible;
  • Failure was not an option.

Don’t you see opportunities that can be exploited? Why aren’t you? Because you don’t have the resources? Wrong answer, if you’re going to be an intrapreneur.

Why You Should Be an Intrapreneur

Are you an intrapreneur? Should you be? Yes!

  • Wouldn’t it be more meaningful for your company for you to exploit opportunities?
  • Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to invent the future?
  • Don’t you think your team would be more productive and more motivated if they believed that they were doing something great?

Another significant benefit is that by having a vision of where you are going, many decisions make themselves. If a particular activity contributes to achieving that vision, do it. If not, don’t.

Will some things fall through the cracks? Of course, but they already are.

How will you get the resources you need? Beats me, but being a great intrapreneur, you’ll figure something out when you need to.

Shouldn’t importance trump urgency? You bet!

Frank Demmler is Associate Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. Previously he was president & CEO of the Future Fund, general partner of the Pittsburgh Seed Fund, co-founder & investment advisor to the Western Pennsylvania Adventure Capital Fund, as well as vice president, venture development, for The Enterprise Corporation of Pittsburgh.