Ashley Furniture CIO Robert White explains why IT professionals are most effective when they focus on “information” first and “technology” second.
By Charlene Oldham
When Robert White looks at a resume, he expects to be impressed by a candidate’s technical skills; but a well crafted cover letter written in plain English dazzles the Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Ashley Furniture Industries much more than a long list of acronym-heavy certifications and proficiencies.
“While [technical skills are] important, that can be taught,” he said. “Business acumen and communication skills are those things that come much more difficult and tend to be very hard for a traditional information technology (IT) person to get comfortable with.”
White does not always adopt the latest “new toy” in order to achieve this goal. Rather, he tries to offer solutions that genuinely make employees’ jobs easier. That means providing people with similar systems, whether they are operating at Ashley’s headquarters in Arcadia, Wisconsin, or in India. When people have the same technological tools, it streamlines their ability to solve common problems and pass on best practices to others.
The latter are essential at Ashley, where White requires his employees to go beyond responding to technology trouble tickets and keeping the company’s computers running. In fact, he expects his worldwide staff of more than 300 to spend significant time collaborating with other departments on projects that “transform the business, as opposed to projects that just keep the lights on.”
“Then you find that they start sharing ideas across locations,” White said, “and there’s a bit of healthy competition as a result.”
Collaboration Over Competition
Collaboration always comes before competition, though, which is an attitude White finds to be too rare in the IT world. Before focusing on IT himself, White earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Southern Illinois University and a master’s in Operations Management from the University of Arkansas. He worked as a Manufacturing Engineer and a Materials Management Specialist, but in these roles he often felt frustrated by the ironic lack of information coming from his companies’ IT departments.
“There was a tendency to believe there was little movement because you just weren’t being updated or provided any kind of communication based on your request,” White said.
He vowed things would be different when he took over an IT Department. Since then, White has started his own business and also directed IT Departments at technology equipment maker Helix Technology and well known consumer products firms Stride Rite and Timex. Whether it is a small business with a handful of employees or a multinational powerhouse, he believes the days when staff members simply submitted work requests to the IT Department and hoped for the best should be over at every company. At Ashley, IT Specialist personnel keep colleagues in the loop regarding their projects through weekly “items of interest” emails. These Friday messages allow key stakeholders to keep tabs on pet projects, ask questions and offer feedback, even if they are not IT specialists themselves.
“I think that it’s important that senior leadership—senior executives in the company—also understand where we are with the various projects, especially those that are of key importance to them, during a given week,” White said.
What’s more, the weekly email digests avoid using too much technical jargon. White encourages his staff to communicate in a way that is clear to everyone in the company.
“What I always challenge my people to do is to first think of themselves and business people,” he said. “Make sure you use language that is understandable in their terms. Don’t use IT terms, use business terms.”
Leaving the Keyboard, Learning the Business
White also encourages his employees to step away from their keyboards and take the time to learn about the rest of the business. Expanding their knowledge not only gives them an understanding and appreciation for what others within the company do, but it also gives IT professionals better ideas as to how to help them do their jobs better, according to White, who learned the importance of empathy while running his own IT firm, Tri-State Technology Services.
“I was involved in every aspect of the business, from advertising to human resources to accounting to being the office janitor,” he said. “Whatever it took, I had to get it done. It allows me to understand and appreciate how the rest of the business runs.”
After two years as an entrepreneur, White wanted to spend more time with family as well as share his philosophy of communication, collaboration and camaraderie on a larger corporate scale. To that end, he tells has staff and protégées to spend just as much time communicating as they do computing. After all, technical skills are often easier to teach than business acumen, particularly to those who already have an affinity for technology.
“CIOs in today’s world must be more proactive, must develop a good understanding of how the rest of the organization operates and its entire ecosystem,” White said, “if you are going to help a company in achieving its goals.”
Charlene Oldham is a freelance writer in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Robert's Key Partners:LeanLogistics (Transportation Technology & Services) | HighJump (Warehouse Management Systems)
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