"If you understand the business and the business strategy, I really do believe IT is in a unique position in that it can bring business solutions to the business that the business can't even imagine," Fergang says. But you have to have the right business aptitude, he adds. "My managers are better businessmen than technologists," he says.
Valuable Time in the Field
In the increasingly complex construction business, Rosendin's Lamonica says engineers and others from the field are much better qualified than IT specialists when it comes to building and supporting software applications and other automated tools used on job sites. They know about workflows, contractor scheduling and overall construction project management, he says.
This expertise is becoming even more important as the industry moves more toward the time-sensitive practice of installing prefabricated assemblies rather than building on-site.
"Prefabrications save a ton on time and money, and the project manager has to know when they have to go [on-site]," Lamonica explains. Most construction sites are space-constrained and don't have a lot of extra room to store an inventory of prefabricated modules. Instead, prefabricated components for big projects, like a 20-floor hospital building, are ordered, built off-site then shipped to the project site on a just-in-time basis. "We in IT wouldn't have a clue how that works," he notes.
Lamonica regularly dispatches technical IT staffers to the field to learn from construction workers who are using automated and mobile tools. He also recruits field staffers to spend a year or two in IT as a way to offer on-the-job training.
"These are people with construction experience" and knowledge that is critical to IT if the company is to design and deliver tools that are truly efficient and productive in the field, Lamonica says.
"But the big challenge is that we can have 1,700 jobs going on at the same time," which makes it very difficult to keep pace with demand, he says. On-the-job use of consumer and mobile technologies is making it even more essential for IT staffers to have bona fide construction and industry knowledge.
"Our end-user community wants apps, and they want them fast and they don't care if they're well baked," Lamonica says. "In order to deliver what they need now, you need to know exactly what it is they're trying to do."
For example, a project manager will walk a construction site and plan the entire job with a mobile app. That information is automatically passed to a purchasing agent. "To build those kinds of mobile apps, you have to know intimately what they need and want," he says.
Pittsburgh-based Alcoa is a prime example of a company that relies heavily on IT-plus professionals.
"At its core, Alcoa is a manufacturing organization, and within the manufacturing processes, we win or lose against our competition," says CIO Nancy Wolk.
Alcoa has a broad initiative under way known as Smart Manufacturing, which Wolk says heavily leverages technology to drive profitability through efficiencies in manufacturing operations. IT staffers and process control engineers work side by side in a global 250-person information processes group. The group is headed by CIO Philip Morrissette, whom Wolk describes as an "IT-plus expert" who is "very much an expert in our vertical industry."
A 33-year veteran of the $23.7 billion manufacturer, Morrissette joined Alcoa with a computer science degree. After a few years, he moved to an IT manager's role at a smelting power plant and mining facility in Texas. At one point in his career, during a strike by unionized labor, he went to work on the plant floor, driving trains and setting controls, he recalls.