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Are CIOs driving digital or holding it back?

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Kathy Gibson at Gartner Symposium, Cape Town – Over the last decade the macro-perspective of technology within organisations has changed radically. And this means CIOs who don’t change as well may find themselves redundant.
In the past, IT did what it was told, says Gartner analyst Mark Raskino. “But look at the companies that are ruling the world now: and the technology in those companies is really important.”
All companies need to foster a culture that has the same level of admiring and exploring technology, he says. “But that doesn’t just happen.”
Expectations of the CIO or deputy-CIO are also changing. “We haven’t been leaders in the past,” Raskino says. “We haven’t been in the business of creating visions and painting pictures of what the business can achieve. But this is what people want.”
So CIOs need to change themselves, he says. “It will be quite fun if we move to that horizon. Also, quite frankly, if we don’t step up, there may well be a replacement cycle. Because the company needs this to happen.”
Sometimes what is holding companies back and limiting their progress in digital is CIOs themselves.
“The permission to act is open, but I hear people making excuses about why they can’t,” Raskino says. “We need to do some self-examination, and take an outside-in look at your mindset.”
CIOs might be so busy doing certain things that they don’t think about the other things they could be doing, he adds. “We need to find ambition and be prepared to scare ourselves. We also need to find the confidence to say we know what we need to do, and do it.”
CIOs also need to challenge some assumptions about their role before they can change it. “A lot of these are deep-seated monologue things that we say to ourselves.”
About half a dozen of these internal monologue objections have to be overcome. They are: they know; we can’t resource; I’m not tech/business enough; I’m not in this industry; I’m the wrong generation; and it’s too risky.
“These are objections that I hear voiced, and I know people are saying it to themselves more than they are saying them out loud,” Raskino says.
The monologue of “they know what the business needs” assumes a “they” that will give the orders about what should be built using technology.
“This idea is wrong,” Raskino says. “Business executives do not know enough about how technology can change their businesses. They don’t know enough about the competitive landscape. I’m not saying they’re clueless, but they have big gaps in their thinking.”
The IT people will always know more about technology and digital, Raskino says. “The CIO has to evolve into a strategy-creating, agenda-setting role. And if you don’t lead, you leave a void for wasteful, poorly-directed IT.
“CIOs’ ideas are predicated on a knowledge about where the digital world is going that is better than everyone else around the table.”
Over the last few years, CEOs have done a U-turn in their attitude to technology, and now recognise it’s important. Because of this, many companies have brought in digital officers to shake things up and start defining a digital business agenda.
“This is generally in reaction to a gap that has been left at the table — and it is often a gap that the CIO knew about, but did nothing about.”
Because 70% of CEOs have a fuzzy or lagging idea of what digital business is, CIOs have to take the lead, Raskino says.
The objection of not being able to resource digital business, in respect of talent or money, often acts as a brake for CIOs.
“But I’m saying that this is a flimsy excuse,” Raskino says. “Maybe the problem is that the company is investing in the wrong things, in old pre-digital ways. You might have to rob the past to feed the future — and stop wasting money on the old things.”
The talent that is needed doesn’t have to be bought, Raskino adds. Organisations could develop these skills internally, arguably at a lower cost than sourcing them through traditional recruitment channels.
“Most of these new skills don’t have university courses anyway. So if you need these people, you will have to develop them yourselves.”
Companies that don’t find the relevant resources will find that their digital disadvantage will get worse, Raskino warns.
The Gartner CEO survey shows that there are multiple investment sources for resources — and, with the right case, CIOs can get access to the funds they need.
Meanwhile, talented people tend to turn up for interesting, exciting work. “Get creative,” says Raskino. “Maybe you have to offer more than a salary. But you have to make your case, advertise, talk about the game and the mission, and the cool projects in your company.”
Raskino also reminds CIOs that startups get going with two people at the kitchen table — it doesn’t always take huge investments to do great things.
“I’m not business/tech enough” is where the CIO isn’t completely comfortable with the terminology of other departments.
“Most technology background CIOs actually know what’s going on across the business — because they are running systems across the business, and have stakeholders in all parts of the business,” Raskino says. “They don’t lack business insight. What they lack is business assertiveness.
“CIOs must apply their disciplined, analytical talent to business innovation — these are things CIOs are good at. They need to take their core competencies and apply them to the part of the business where they are not very good.”
Raskino points out that a c-level executive has a duty to deliver the best possible outcome for the company — so not ensuring that the best ideas and insights are used for the benefit of the company is dereliction of duty, he adds.
“Some of the world’s best, most admired business leaders used their computer science brain to develop their businesses,” Raskino says. People like Satya Nadella, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Sergei Brin are all computer scientists.
“You don’t have to be Richard Branson,” Raskino says. “You just have to outrun the weakest competition. And you don’t have to do it alone — you need to lead the team.”
The flip side of this is the CIO who believes he isn’t well up on the technology. “Business background CIOs may fret about their lack of tech knowledge,” Raskino says. “But knowing what’s worth doing is just as important as how to build it. CIOs must apply human needs and entrepreneurial opportunity insights.”
Raskino points out that some of the top tech business innovators do not have a computer science background — but they know they needed technology to help them build their businesses.
When CIOs feel they don’t know the industry, this need not necessarily be a stumbling block.
“But did the guy who invented Uber come from the taxi industry?” Raskino asks. “CIOs must commit to re-inventing their industries — or someone else will. And fresh eyes could see through redundant constraints.”
Raskino says the one monologue that really upsets him is “I’m the wrong generation”.
“Some CIOs thing they are too far removed from born digital natives to lead digital thinking. This idea that somehow digital equates to youth doesn’t fly. Digital technology is not owned by a group of 20-something hipsters.”
CIOs also need to push for consideration of all generation and apply multi-cycle wisdom.
“It’s too much of a risk” is also not true anymore, Raskino adds. “If the CIO thinks they are safer with the status quo they could become a personal board problem. IT is now critical to revenue and growth — and the risk of not acting is now greater than the risk of doing something and failing.”
Addressing these challenges will help CIOs to become the digital leaders their organisations need, Raskino says.
“This is the most exciting time in IT in the last two decades — don’t waste it,” he adds.