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Role of CIO increasingly calls for monetizing IT, intellectual assets

Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

The CIO job has gotten its share of bad press, including the snide joke that the acronym stands for  career is over. As businesses of all stripes become more information-

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and digital-centric, however, CIOs are increasingly being asked to use their IT smarts to generate revenue.

Consider the recent experience of Larry Bonfante, CIO of the United States Tennis Association Inc. (USTA).

The USTA, the world's largest tennis association and sponsor of the U.S. Open, has accumulated about 25,000 hours of historical video footage from its 129-year-old marquee tournament and other tennis matches. The footage has now been digitized. In fact, snippets of it showed up in the USTA's "It Must Be Love" commercials for the just-finished 2010 games. A  DVD of the U.S. Open's greatest hits just went on sale, and the organization is working with a third-party company to license the footage so fans can buy it by the slice online.

"We drove that," Bonfante said. Three years ago, the USTA's digital asset management and archival teams were rolled together under his management. "At that point, it was a back-end process and a back-end function. We brought it to the forefront by working with our marketing and broadcast partners to create videos and commercials, and help drive revenue for the organization," he said.

Role of CIO as rainmaker

Bonfante is not alone in his new role as a revenue generator -- according to recruiters at top search firms and analysts who follow the CIO role, the job is transcending its traditional function of automating and enabling other aspects of the business.

"That's not to say, that role is no longer really important. It is," said headhunter Shawn Banerji, a member of the technology sector practice at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. in New York. And the "best CIOs," he is quick to add, possess both strategic business smarts and superb operational ability.

But as more businesses become aggregators of data, the ability to monetize those assets "is a big deal." Banerji said. "The companies that get it are looking at their CIOs and saying, 'Gee, Bob or Sally, you're the one who owns this stuff. You're the business information officer. Help us figure out how we can make money off this -- or make more money off it,'" he said.

Indeed, the digitization of business assets-- in concert with the rise of social media and networking as the vehicles of choice for reaching customers -- increasingly puts IT at the heart -- or in the maelstrom -- of the business' marketing effort. "It's to the point now where in the marketing functions of certain organizations, you can't tell the difference between the IT guy and the marketing guy," Banerji said.

In the past year, Russell Reynolds has worked with a number of companies in media, entertainment and publishing that are looking for just such IT leaders. A major educational testing company wanted a CIO who could use technology to turn its information assets into products, and extend its franchise to the Web and mobile devices. A large book publisher, scrambling to figure out how to stay afloat in a business co-opted by the Amazons of the world, ended up hiring a communications-savvy CIO from the radio industry.

Some companies aren't accustomed to looking to their CIO for ideas on driving revenue. In those cases, as the CIO of a metropolitan newspaper on the West Coast recently told SearchCIO.com, gadgets can help. As the head of the paper's digital business content group, as well as head of IT, this CIO knows that figuring out how to use mobile platforms to deliver content to customers is an important initiative for the paper. In an effort to drum up enthusiasm and brainstorm ideas on the business side, he purchased iPads for a handful of top executives and loaded the devices with news content. Two months in, "the response has been overwhelming," he said.

Selling ideas in and outside IT

The search for the CIO as product visionary is not confined to the content industries, however.

Gartner Inc. analyst Mark McDonald, head of research for executive programs at the Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy, said his group is fielding requests from CIOs in all kinds of industries to help them make products from their digital assets and monetize their intellectual property. The most recent request came from the CIO at a Global 100 optical engineering firm; his only question was how he could sell his company's optical designs to other manufacturers down the supply chain.

The companies that get it are looking at their CIOs and saying, "You're the one who owns this stuff. You're the business information officer. Help us figure out how we can make money off this -- or make more money off it."

Shawn Banerji, technology sector practice, Russell Reynolds Associates Inc.

"This is not just limited to publishing or entertainment. It is starting with a fundamental question: 'We have intellectual property -- how do we get more value from it?'" McDonald said, citing Qualcomm Inc. as an early example of a company that made intellectual property its core business. The power of social media to add value to intellectual property is driving some of these efforts. But in many cases, the impetus is more basic. "Companies, in this current economic climate are looking for every source of revenue they can get," he said.

Monetizing intellectual property is not confined to the company's traditional products, McDonald said. CIOs at companies with large, sophisticated IT departments are looking for ways to leverage their IT assets, sometimes by adding scale to the already large departments, so they can sell their product or service to other companies.

Nor is the effort limited to giant companies. When USTA's Bonfante could not find a software system that could handle the myriad functions of the USTA's command center for big events, his team built one. The USTA's homegrown event management system developed workflows for handling calamities ranging from a burned-out light bulb to a suspicious package in the athletes' village. Positive feedback from people who work at other events has led to Bonfante shopping the program around to other sports and entertainment leagues. "We've gotten some bites," he said.

A word of caution: Don't neglect your day job for the product business, Bonfante said. And avoid acting like you know more than you do. "I consider myself a good marketing person for a CIO, but that doesn't mean I am a good marketing person. I make sure I engage the folks in the marketing department and leverage their skills."

Headhunter Banerji agreed. In the businesses that are leveraging IT and digital assets most successfully, the CIOs are helicopter managers, as he calls them -- able to think strategically around the business and execute around IT. "The most effective CIOs today are people who can swing from one end of that pendulum to the other, and not in the course of a week, but literally in the course of a business day," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.