Hands On: Understanding Customers in the Real World

When John Barbano assumed the position of vice president of global infrastructure operations at Johnson & Johnson Networking & Computing Services, he did all he could to learn about the US$47.3 billion parent company, Johnson & Johnson, which develops pharmaceuticals, medical devices and consumer products. Since Barbano's previous CIO experience was in financial services at Merrill Lynch & Co., he immediately began studying the inner workings of the New Brunswick, N.J., conglomerate and its product lines. Approximately 15 months later, in February 2004, he moved up the management ranks to vice president and CIO for J&J's largest business segment, pharmaceuticals. (The pharmaceutical arm stretches across six R&D companies worldwide.) Once in that role, he initiated a deeper educational process.

"My own learning was accelerated through special projects, spending time with scientists and clinicians, seeing how they do drug discovery and development, listening to their challenges," he says. "I also make a point to keep up with the industry by reading books, attending select conferences and reading white papers about vendor solutions."

Barbano represents the new wave of IT professionals who initiate hands-on experiences to understand the nuts and bolts of what it takes to create a product or serve a customer. By immersing themselves in business, they boost company success while building the trust and credibility that leads to career success.

As they think outside the computer box, they become specialists in marketing, R&D, sales and other company functions. "Businesses are turning to the IT departments and saying, 'We need new ways of reaching customers and want to build products in a more efficient way,'" says Mark Gilfand, incoming president of the Association of Information Technology Professionals in Chicago.

As companies reorganize and merge, corporations are purposely strengthening the ties between IT and core business, and the changes provide an opportunity for IT executives to reshape departments and retrain staffs.

Hence, IT departments are no longer order takers. "We can come to scientists and end users with solutions, whereas before, they used to tell us what they thought the solution should be," Barbano says. "We can say, 'Here's what we think we should be delivering in terms of technology-driven business solutions.'"

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