A Question Of Leadership

Late last year a chief information officer laid out the very simple mission for today’s CIO. “My job is to take the company from A to B faster.

This is the final blog in a six-part series. Catch up on all the previous blogs.

Late last year a chief information officer laid out the very simple mission for today’s CIO. “My job is to take the company from A to B faster,” he said, placing heavy emphasis on the last word.

At face value, the same could be said to be true for just about any role. However, once unpacked, this pithy statement tells a compelling story of the challenges facing CIOs today.

This description of the CIO’s role also aligns well with Gartner’s “CIO Leadership in Governance, Strategic Execution and Operational Performance Overview,” which identifies ‘A’ as the current operating model and ‘B’ as the future operating model. In each operating model there are a set of capabilities (people, processes and technologies), and the journey from the current to the future state requires leadership to encompass elements such as governance, business strategy and strategic execution.

Understanding where you are starting from

It is easy to underestimate the difficulty of establishing a thorough understanding of the starting position in IT. On many journeys the point of departure is just that – a point in time. But where technology is involved, a deep knowledge of the current state is critical to being able to move forward without unintended consequences. The layers of technology laid down over time, and the multiple levels of abstraction common in modern virtualised architectures make this more challenging than most people realize.

What’s more, the data landscape is increasingly fragmented as data has moved out of the data centre into multiple cloud environments, SaaS deployments and end point devices. Gaining a clear understanding of what the company’s core information and infrastructure assets are, and how they work together to deliver the services the business relies on, is therefore no small feat.

Whilst it is apparent that an understanding of the technology landscape and data estate is required for the CIO to be able to plan how to move forward, the process and people aspects are just as important, businesses run on processes and those processes are run by people with defined roles and skill.

Lastly, a clear understanding of the current state also involves knowing and assessing the drivers for change, including the consequences of doing nothing. This involves knowledge of the market and the trends within it. The CIO’s colleagues in the C Suite, particularly the CFO and CMO, will have an extensive amount data – and insights – to share, but making use of these requires a good grounding in both the industry as well as the company itself.

Determining the future operating model

If understanding where you currently are is essentially a management task, determining how to move forward is a leadership challenge, requiring business vision. Gartner summarizes this in “The 2018 CIO Agenda: Mastering the New Job of the CIO” with, “The nature of the CIO’s job has changed from the role of delivery executive to that of IT business executive.”

The current wave of business modernization, usually referred to as digital transformation, puts an unprecedented weight of expectation upon IT leaders to show how technology can improve or transform business outcomes. The breadth of scope of both in terms of activities that can be pursued and their business impact is very wide. Technology can be deployed to improve a business process, to offer new products or services, or to transform the business model of the company.

Interestingly, scope and impact may not be proportional; is quite possible to expend huge amounts of time and money on marginally improving a business process or to spend a more modest amount of resources on transforming the company’s operating or business model.

A key ingredient here is vision and the ability to think differently, and to envision a better future state that can be realized. For it to be effective, vision needs to be a collective, business-centred concept, shared across the entire C-Suite. As such, the responsibility for formulating this vision is unlikely to fall upon the CIO alone, as there may also be a head of digital, or innovation, or other players within the leadership team that share the burden.

Another dimension of that shared burden, perhaps better thought of as a ‘critical success factor,’ is the CIO’s team. Achieving radical or remarkable outcomes is seldom the product of a single mind. Robert Swan, the only person to walk to both poles unassisted, captured this very well when he said, “If everyone thinks the same, no one is thinking.”

Diversity of thought, competence, background and experience are all vital to a team in driving transformational change. British Olympian Chris Boardman, whose company designed some extremely successful Olympic cycles, has publicly observed that one of the most important factors in achieving success was through diversity of thought and experience. When he brought advanced materials specialists – whom had no cycling background whatsoever – into his team, they asked questions that the changed the nature of the conversation and contributed to an altogether more radical, and better outcome.

Given a CIO has a firm grasp on the start point and sets a strong direction, the next task is to make the transition happen via strategic execution. Clearly this involves large scale change, which is famously difficult to achieve. In IT this has often been characterized as ‘changing the tires without stopping the car,’ to indicate that operations need to continue uninterrupted during the change. Today a more realistic analogy might involve changing far more than the tires, but the fundamentals of change management remain.

Gaining commitment to change, ensuring the skills necessary are in place, evaluating and communicating progress are among some of the key tasks, most of which revolve around people, rather than technology. Of these factors, skills are of paramount importance and have been identified by Gartner (among others), as the No. 1 impediment to transformational change.

Therefore, finding, attracting and retaining talented individuals is arguably as important a factor as any for those CIOs looking to effect successful, long-term digital business strategies.

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