The CIO playbook for the digital age
The IT department is the lynchpin that turns technology vendor offerings into value for business, individuals and society. The CIO is the most critical person in this most critical of junctures. That’s how I see it. However, many organisations sit on a spectrum, where this is one extreme and the other being that the CIO is simply responsible for supporting operations from an IT perspective. So at one extreme we have digital age leadership and at the other we have IT management. This post proposes that the role of CIO needs to be revisited and offers a CIO playbook in respect of how you can boost your strategic relevance as we leave the industrial era and enter an uncertain future.
Where are you on the spectrum?
You might reflect on where you sit on this spectrum. Here are a few questions to help:
- Are you the first point of contact when a senior executive has a technology-related problem, eg. a possible laptop virus, or they cannot decide whether to go Android or iOS in respect of their nephew’s birthday present?
- Do you have a CxO title, yet are not part of the organisation’s leadership team?
- Are your budgetary discussions with the senior executive team largely around the theme of cost or value?
- Have you ever found yourself in a boardroom discussion, where it soon became apparent that it was everyone versus you, and despite the robustness of your argument, you are no longer invited to such discussions?
- Was your predecessor unfairly dismissed because a poor business outcome was attributed to a perceived IT shortcoming, even though the outcome was not related to the technology?
- To what extent are you involved in your organisation’s next generation data-driven products, services and experiences?
- Does the leadership team look to you for guidance on how to harness the latest technologies to create new business models?
I have been involved in the world of CIOs for several decades as a coach and advisor. I have had digital leadership columns in the Financial Times and CIO magazine for many years. Plus, I was a judge on the CIO100 for many years. And whilst there is a general improvement in respect of the CIO’s perceived value, it has changed little in the last few decades.
Chance of a career
However, there is an opportunity now for CIOs to reinvent themselves because the rules of the game are changing, and many CEOs are rudderless in respect of how they move forward.
This is your opportunity. In my view, if you fail to act on it, you will likely spiral into operational obsolescence (see next section!) as the IT aspects of the organisation migrate to third parties either wholesale (outsourced) or by service (XaaS). Neither of these options obviate the need for some form of IT management, but this could be handled through a procurement function that has access to an enterprise architect.
Cold porridge and technology management
Having been involved in many CIO-related events, I have a strong sense of you being exposed to people like me pontificating on stage in a woeful manner about the plight of the CIO. But over the years, I have realised that there is only so much cold porridge a person can take, and thus this is a counterproductive approach.
It’s not all dreary news. There are some valuable and uplifting CIO surveys out in the market. My one gripe is that they are generally trapped in a technology management paradigm and so do not ask the right questions. They can also present a ‘my perfect life’ Facebook effect, where the findings seem to reflect an idealised CIO. Again, this is not helpful.
So the intention with this post is to reset the CIO value proposition and then suggest how you transition to this new model in order to stay economically in-play. Keep in mind, this is not a challenge faced only by the CIO. Everyone up and down the organisation needs to reinvent themselves for the digital age.
We do need technology / IT managers, but that need is diminishing by the day.
We do need someone who can help transform the organisation into an organism that can thrive in an uncertain and increasingly volatile environment.
Please note that change management will not cut it. Nor will digitalisation, which really is just business process reengineering revisited. As I have mentioned in other posts, a faster, smarter and cheaper Titanic is still a Titanic. Very few organisational leaders appreciate this until the digital tsunami is upon them and ruthlessly dismantling their business.
Often CIOs are the victims of business strategy. In as much as strategy is still relevant in a rapidly changing world, CIOs need to transition to cocreators of the strategy. And the opportunity even exists for CIOs to lead the digital charge. But victim to helmsman in one jump is unlikely, so a staged approach is required.
It is worthwhile reflecting on how you are perceived. What does your brand look like, irascible technology genius or nascent business executive? Step one is to understand what your behaviours are communicating to the other leaders.
A way of looking at this is to ask yourself, where do you sit on the CEO’s risk register. As an owner of a significant percentage of the infrastructural budget, are you delivering the best return on that spend? Are you working well with the other senior executives? Are you explaining in a manner they understand as to why a given IT project needs more investment or how blockchain and AI could open up new markets?
Trust building and communications skills are two key qualities to nail if you are to become part of the inner sanctum. Credibility, relevance and intimacy are key elements of trust. What can you do boost your performance in these areas?
This is job number one. If you are unable to cultivate trust and communication lucidity, you will be perceived as a ‘managed risk’, with little chance of joining the leadership team.
So let’s imagine that you have addressed these table stakes. There are some very specific ways in which you can play a leading role in your organisation’s transformation.
Past successes are no longer indicators of future success. The sooner your organisation realises there are no more berries on the bush, the sooner it will move on to find other sources of nutrition. Organisations can only be adaptable if they understand how the environment is changing and are willing to experiment with different approaches to figure out what to do next. Data is key to this. More specifically, the inferences that can be derived from the data. So analytic tools are important. This should not be new territory for CIOs. It just requires your leadership team to wake up to the importance of understanding what is happening beyond the car park.
The association between the CIO and innovation has been around for a long time. We have all heard the clarion call to become the Chief Innovation Officer, or the back-biting comments that in summary suggest that the CIO is the person who puts the ‘No’ in innovation.
Innovation, despite its creative underpinnings, is a data-driven process.
I see the CIO as a prime candidate to manage the innovation lifecycle from ideas capture through to value realisation.
You do not have to be the most creative person in the organisation to lead this. However, I would expect you and your team to be the source of many data and tech-centric business transformation innovations.
If you really want the attention of the CEO, talk assets. CFOs, receive a lot of face time, as do sales and marketing leaders for this very reason. By positioning your organisation’s data as an asset class, you will find yourself in the same situation.
As you well know, good data leads to better business decisions and even better products, services and experiences for your consumers. However, to do this well requires an integrated and coherent enterprise data model. Most organisations do not have such a thing. Smart CIOs will explain that no matter how fancy the analytics tools, they will yield rubbish if they are drawing from a data cesspit.
Ironically it is good old-fashioned technology management that offers the best route for securing the organisation’s future.
Some of you will know that I am guilty of berating CIOs for having too close a relationship with technology; implying that to become a business executive you must disassociate yourself from all talk of technology matters. In recent years, I have reversed this perspective. New technologies have the capability of creating new business opportunities and thus being the person at the top table who understands this will cause your personal stock to skyrocket.
Those CIOs who have arrived from other functions, eg. HR and Finance might struggle with this. But like everything it can be learnt. Smart chief technology officers and enterprise/solution architects are recognising that this could be their trump card in respect of bypassing the CIO role on their journey to the c-suite.
CIO Playbook not prayer book
I am conscious that you might be going flat out on ‘run the business’ (RTB) matters and have no time for this renaissance CIO nonsense. Respectfully, if you are going flat out, it might suggest that delegation is added to your development to do list. If you are solely focusing on RTB because there is no budget for anything else, then it’s time to innovate within your function to free up budget that then enables you to venture into doing the same for the wider business. Keeping your head down focusing on RTB, will likely in due course present you with the less appealing opportunity of playing a role in saving the business.
I believe the opportunity exists to reinvent yourself for the digital age. I would also encourage aspirant CIOs to embrace this new post-industrial reality. I hope that at the very least this CIO playbook helps you to better understand the leadership dynamics within your organisation.
To summarise, step one is to develop faith in yourself and cultivate that same faith in you in others. Then set about acting like a digital age leader and lead the charge into the digital era.