3 Secrets That Oil Companies Use To Run A Great IT Department

Peter Whatnell, CIO of Sunoco, Has Some Interesting Thoughts On How To Run A Successful IT Department
Peter Whatnell, CIO of Sunoco, Has Some Interesting Thoughts On How To Run A Successful IT Department

If you had to guess as to what the secret of running a great IT department is, what would you say? Peter Whatnell over at Sunoco has some thoughts on this subject. Peter breaks it down to three key items: knowing how your company makes money, choosing to not run against the company’s culture, and remembering to never fall in love with technology. How hard can that be?

Whatnell is a bright guy: he’ s been in charge of Sunoco’s IT operations since 2001 (remember the dot.com crash?) and he is now the president of the Society for Information Management. Ben Worthen over at the Wall Street Journal recently had a chance to sit down with Peter and have a chat about the role that an IT department plays in a company’s success.

Whatnell pointed out that the arrival of a global recession has caused all IT departments to take any plans that they had created prior to the end of August and basically throw them away. The big hit is going to be especially felt in new projects.

The difference between current events and the dot.com crash that happened back in 2001 is that that crash really only impacted the IT community. This time around, it’s really a global meltdown and it’s impacting the whole business.

IT is facing a significant challenge in that there is now a lot of easy-to-use IT technology that is available to consumers. Examples include the iPhone (of course!) and free on-line email accounts with virtually unlimited storage. What this means is that corporate users are now expecting to see similar products available to them while they are at work.

IT departments have some valid security and support issues for not diving headlong into offering such services internally. However, they do need to seriously consider how to offer their customers such services.

Whatnell stresses that we need to make sure that we don’t “…waste a good crisis.” What he means by this is that 2009 is going to be tough and it’s going to force every IT department to investigate nontraditional ways of delivering IT services.

Whatnell is somewhat famous for saying that he’d consider moving to a cheaper alternative, such as Google’s email system, if he could get 90% of the functionality for 10% of the cost. One of the reasons that he’s taken this stance is because he realizes that most users only scratch the surface of the functionality of the applications that they have available to them. Give the power users access to the fancy, expensive version of the apps and give everyone else the basic version.

Whatnell has some very specific thoughts when it comes to evaluating potential IT projects. He says that he evaluates projects based on what they do to support the company’s strategy, what the business case is, and finally, what the business risk is.

He points out that the more change that an IT project would cause to how business is conducted, the bigger the risk is. This does not mean that you don’t do the IT project, but that you need to be very careful and make sure that you give your full attention to all of the change management activities that would be required.

What do you think about what Peter has to say? Do you think that his view from inside an oil company is relevant to the rest of the IT industry? Which of his suggestions do you think is the most important? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.