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CIO Unplugged – 3/15/08

March 15, 2008 Ed Marx No Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally, and are not necessarily representative of Texas Health Resources or its subsidiaries.

CIO reDefined: Chief Interpretation Officer
By Ed Marx

The roles of a CIO are as varied as the companies and sectors they serve. Even within these roles are multiple combinations and permutations that are expressed according to circumstance. The moniker “CIO” itself is not limited to “Chief Information Officer.” No, to be effective in our calling we must stretch the traditional definition beyond this commonly accepted interpretation. This post continues a series on how the “CIO 2.0” will push the boundaries of conventional thinking surrounding the role. We continue with the “Chief Interpretation Officer.”

3:15. Shanghais. After taking the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong, we take the bus across the border into China. It is our honeymoon, but we separate as we head into customs. If one of us is caught we don’t want to put the other in jeopardy. Plus, because we were just recently married, my wife’s passport has her maiden name and we don’t want to bring any more attention upon ourselves than is wise. We are both carrying contraband.

We both are stopped and our bags inspected. They don’t find our contraband but we can’t find each other on the China side of the massive and busy custom center. As I sit on a bench praying and contemplating the next move, a smiling customs officer walks quickly towards me and with gestures informs me that there is another young person from America traveling alone and than he introduces us. Little did he know the beautiful young woman was my wife. We play along, lose the helpful official and head to a taxi stand. Our Chinese is straight out of Berlitz and the drivers English is wanting but we are able to traverse the right directions. Our 4 hour journey begins to Shanghais where we will transfer our 120 bibles to the underground church.

All we have is an address to a hotel where we will stay for several days and honeymoon. We expect a call on our first night with more information for the drop. The call comes in. Per the instructions, we go to the downtown bus station and walk around, toting our bags full of treasure. After a few minutes of walking the length of the station, two old Chinese ladies walk along side of us, put their hands over ours, we release our grip, move to the side and they walk off into the night. Our hearts were racing but we were overcome with a sense of relief. Despite language and cultural barriers, we completed our mission.

Sometimes in healthcare, it can feel as if we are speaking different languages surrounded by a multiplicity of cultures all trying to complete a common mission. And it is true. Healthcare is a melting plot of clinical, business, academia and technical languages all coming together in service of patient care. You mix these languages together in a pot with an equal number of varying cultures and its no wonder that the father of modern business, the late Peter Drucker, called healthcare, academic specifically, the most complex organization in the world.

We have seen a dramatic shift taking place with the emergence of CIO 2.0. No longer a technophile, the new CIO can speak and understand multiple languages interpreting and synthesizing the messages amongst related complex cultures. This CIO often has a varied background with a healthy mix of clinical, business and technology skills along with the requisite leadership talents. When with clinicians the CIO speaks clinically, when with business persons they speak business speak and when with technologists can communicate equally well. In each case, the CIO must interpret what they hear in the language of the speaker and translate that amongst all the stakeholders. Conversely, if the CIO cannot communicate technical innovations or challenges to the clinician or business person, outcomes will be substandard.

CIO’s can learn and sharpen these skills. There are multiple ways to do this and I have found the following personally helpful.

Mentors. My formal mentors have purposefully included administrators and clinicians. I have mentored with CEO’s, COO’s, CFO’s and CMO’s. I asked questions, listened and transformed myself.
Rounding. I have rounded routinely with physicians and nurses. Despite my time as an Army combat medic and in the OR, I still have so much more to learn. Every time I round I deepen my customer understanding.
Reading. I read journals for administrators and clinicians while staying current in technology. I learn their languages and culture and apply them when possible.
Hire it. I try and surround myself and embed my department with individuals who have business and clinical backgrounds. By introducing their languages and cultures, I hope to create an environment where there is no longer a need for interpretation but we have a common language everyone understands.
Listen. When I am with administrators and clinicians I do a tremendous amount of deep listening. As I gain greater insights into their challenges and opportunities, I am able to respond with technology enabled solutions but in a language they can understand.
Conferences. At conferences, I always try to attend sessions outside of the technical domain. I want to know the top issues facing administrators and clinicians alike and see if there are answers that leverage technology.

Sometimes it can seem like we are all from different cultures and languages and everyone is speaking but no one is understanding. It is imperative for the CIO to be multi-cultural and proficient at multiple languages. Even if you only begin with modest understanding, these are skills that can be learned and mastered. You may not find yourself on the other side of the globe interpreting languages and signals to complete your mission, but you may feel like it at times as you gain mastery. This is no longer optional, but required to be a successful Chief Interpretation Officer.


Ed Marx is senior vice president and CIO at Texas Health Resources in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. (Use the “add a comment” function at the bottom of each post.) You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook, and you can follow him via Twitter – User Name “marxists.”

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