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CIOs more prevalent, but what are they busy doing?

With rapidly increasing technology, a new job title entered the business, educational and medical world. It’s the chief information officer (CIO) or sometimes called chief systems information officer or medical information officer. Their roles are similar and all provide important leadership in the technology-driven world.

Homer Coffman is the chief information officer for the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and answers directly to president Shelby Thames. He says the position has been in the corporate world for about 20 years, but he’s the first person in that role at USM.

“Technology is so pervasive. Every business needs it, has it and uses it,” he said. “The chief information officer is becoming more predominant. This person leverages technology for the profitability of a company or to accomplish the mission of the organization. In our case, it’s to provide the best education possible for our students.”

Coffman has operational, strategic and fiscal responsibility for advancement, implementation and strategic planning related to technology at USM. He is specifically responsible for instructional and research computing for students, staff and faculty at all campuses. He oversees development and operation of the hardware and software infrastructure necessary to support emerging academic and administrative computing needs; recommending budget priorities; and working closely with the executive team to establish technology priorities. He also manages the 110-employee technology department.

“This department touches everything at the university — computers, hardware and software, e-mail messages, telephones and fax machines — and makes sure technology aligns with what the university is doing,” he said. “Crisis management is what I really am. I’m the person who figures out how to get technology to do what we need it to do.”

He says because of federal legislation universities are required to have someone provide this function. As a retired Navy officer, he came to it with a good background of responsibility for engineering systems on a ship. “I had to make the complexities of these systems seamless and cost efficient,” he said, “and that is what I do at the university.”

Coffman thinks the role of chief information officers will continue to grow and evolve as some companies spend 60% to 70% of their budget on technology. “There’s a lot of investing in technology and a lot of decisions to be made,” he said.

“Also, the line is becoming more blurred by technology on the job and in private life. A cell phone can notify someone that they have e-mail. Technology comes to you and is more mobile.”

Mike Miller, vice president of marketing for Consultrix Technologies of Ridgeland, agrees that the CIO has evolved with technology in the last three decades. “I first heard of a CIO in the mid-1980s and now we deal with a lot of them,” he said. “Technology has become much more of a strategic tool for organizations to help them accomplish what they want to do and that’s where CIOs come into play.”

He says year 2000 issues pointed out to people just how many services are dependent on technology. “We saw some CIOs before 2000 but since then have seen many more emerging,” he said. “Organizations need someone at the executive level who can sit down with people at the highest level and make decisions. Their role is much more strategic than that of an information technology manager or chief technology officer.”

Consultrix Technologies, is primarily an IT services company. It works with large and small companies for technology solutions, design and installations and does a ton of ongoing support. Miller said Consultrix deals with CIOs in all walks of life. “Almost every large company has one, and it’s filtered down to high-end medium size companies,” he said. “It’s becoming more mainstream.”

Although the CIO in many cases is head of the information technology department, this person won’t be sitting down every day ordering personal computers, Miller said. “The CIO is not a nuts and bolts function but has a more idealistic view. He tends to look at information and how the company can use it in a strategic way,” he added. “Companies pay particular attention to what information technology can do for them and are diligent about making deliberate purchases.”

Memorial Hospital at Gulfport has a medical information officer, John Doulis, M.D., who marries strategic planning issues with the deployment of information technologies to the hospital’s caregivers. He also serves as a liaison among physicians, the clinical staff and other departments in the use of an electronic health record system.

“I also serve as an educational resource on emerging or strategic planning issues to ensure that the hospital’s goals and objectives for IT are consistent with broader long-range planning issues,” he said.

Doulis added that with the emphasis on evidence-based clinical decision support, the electronic health record augments the care delivered to patients. “Medications are labeled with barcodes and scanned to eliminate potential errors,” he said. “Patient information is accessible from any location within the hospital, from clinical offices and from handheld mobile devices over a wireless network.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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