CIOCAN at 20: Dr. Catherine Aczel Boivie on lessons learned, and the way forward

Twenty years ago, few people had any idea how devices like the iPhone and apps would transform everyday life.

The first commercial cloud computing service had yet to launch.

Generative AI was a long way from entering the public’s vocabulary.

Yet there was one important milestone Canada reached in 2004 that would prove to have an enormous impact on the country’s IT leaders – and Dr. Catherine Aczel Boivie is among those we have to thank for it.

CIOCAN will be celebrating 20 years of fostering a unique professional community at this year’s Peer Forum in Calgary. That makes it a good time to reflect on the association’s origins and early growth.

In doing so you quickly realize that, as much as the world of information technology has changed, the foundational principals that underpin CIOCAN have remained the same. Catherine deserves a lot of credit for that, too.

By CIOs, for CIOs

Unlike vendor-driven gatherings or traditional user groups, for example, CIOCAN from its inception has been a community developed by CIOs, for CIOs. That independence has allowed CIOCAN members to have candid, product-agnostic conversations that go beyond the tools to learning about business and leadership.

Though CIOCAN is now widely regarded as the country’s premier professional network for IT leaders, Catherine says she was motivated by a void that had existed in Canada for too long.

“There were no other organizations that solely addressed CIOs,” she recalls, compared with associations aimed at developers and programmers. “And CIOs are focused on issues on a more strategic level. We needed an association that could offer genuine dialogue and connection.”

How CIOCAN was born

Having just moved from Toronto to Vancouver for work in the 1990s, Catherine initially focused on bringing together local CIOs in B.C. The early success of those gatherings led to put out feelers in other key Canadian markets such as Toronto, Calgary and Halifax. The Peer Forum, meanwhile, became an annual opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and best practices to as many CIOs as possible.

“The main purpose was to share knowledge, because in IT, things change so fast,” Catherine points out. “By the time an article about a new innovation is published, it’s probably out of date. You could ask a consulting firm that successfully assisted you in change management associated with a new technology, but we all know that their insights stem from another customer – the consultant wasn’t necessarily doing everything themselves. So the association and the Peer Forum became a way to gain practical advice, as well as starting to educate and prepare the next generation of CIOs.”

How CIOCAN membership builds business savvy

Building CIOCAN with the help of its first board members not only allowed Catherine to meet other CIOs, but people whose professional background offered insights that have been truly out of this world. In one of the early Peer Forums, for example, she secured Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut, who had plenty to share in terms of strategy, risk-taking and team-building. At the 2007 Peer Forum, Catherine was the moderator when the keynote speakers Don Tapscott and Nicholas Carr were debating “Does IT Matter?” which was also Nicholas Carr’s controversial book.  

In other respects, getting deeply involved with a professional association also helped Catherine to develop her business skills. This includes the work she did in helping set up CIOCAN’s bylaws, governance structure and working through the implications of provincial vs. national registration. Demonstrating accountability and transparency in making decisions was a key takeaway.

“It gives me a broader perspective of organizational challenges,” she says. “And the governance practices I learned in setting up the association still assists me today – I’m on five boards right now.”

The same can be true of other IT leaders who not only become CIOCAN members but who become active volunteers in shaping the work chapters do and contributing to the Peer Forum experience. These activities require you to listen to multiple stakeholders, consider many points of view and convince people to make positive changes.

Taking Peer Forum takeaways to work

These are all skills that are just as important in CIOs’ day jobs. At one point in her career, for example, Catherine gave a package of LEGO as well as a package of MEGA blocks to the company’s board members and asked them to put them together. They admitted they couldn’t. That helped explain why she was recommending the organization invest in integration software.

“You have to explain things in ways that people understand,” she says. “You can’t give them a textbook, and you can’t convince them with technobabble.”

Then there’s the opposite problem – when senior executives hear about an emerging technology and want their CIO to immediately deploy it across the organization. Catherine (and others) calls this “airline magazine syndrome,” and suggests another key benefit of being a CIOCAN member is connecting with other IT leaders who have learned how to tone down the hype when necessary.

The enduring importance of CIOCAN’s IT leadership community

CIOCAN can also play a strong role in supporting and empowering more women to become IT leaders, Catherine says, in part by dispelling misconceptions that a mathematics background is required and encouraging female CIOs to make their voices heard in the boardroom.

As the association enters into its next era of growth, Catherine sees opportunities for CIOCAN to partner with other professional organizations and further IT-business alignment. The key, however, is that Canadian IT leaders realize they can be part of a group that is now about 500 members strong, and that they simply have to take the first step and join in order to begin enjoying the rewards of membership.

“Networking is really important. New members who go to events discover what other people are doing and how they can help them. Or they could wind up being the ones providing help – it’s a two-way street,” she says. “It’s like a slide that I used to include in some of my presentations: ‘Mother was wrong – it’s okay to talk to strangers.’” 

CIOs from small and large organizations see value being members and participating in local and national events. It was a dream that was shared initially by a committed few, and today is shared by hundreds, resulting in efforts initiated by many people over the past 20 years which have culminated into a unique national organization connecting CIOs across Canada. 

Catherine Aczel Boivie, Founder of CIO Association of Canada

Dr. Catherine Aczel Boivie will be speaking at the 2024 CIO Peer Forum®️

Click here to learn more about the CIO Peer Forum!