Feature Story

IT’s New Starring Role

Gartner Symposium/ITxpo shined a spotlight on CIOs mastering innovation and business outcomes

When IT loses touch with an organization’s core goals, it’s no joke.

But that didn’t stop Robert M. Gates from recounting his own IT misadventures during a keynote address at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Florida.

“I think I can sit here and tell you that as a former director of central intelligence and secretary of defense, I have wasted more taxpayer money on IT than maybe anybody in history,” he admitted, as a vast crowd of CIOs and technology leaders erupted in laughter.

Laughter aside, aligning IT with business outcomes was a serious theme at the event.

And it will be more critical as CIOs step into the spotlight. Moving from a supportive role to driving innovative customer and workforce experiences.

“If IT is not relevant, then the business is going to become extinct,” said E.G. Nadhan, chief technology strategist for Red Hat. “We are talking about the business of IT innovating to make the business of enterprise real.”

Laying the Foundation: Infrastructure for Growth, Agility, and Security

Of course, staying relevant and driving innovation is especially challenging at a time when simply “keeping the lights on” involves multiple clouds, ever-expanding numbers of endpoints, advanced persistent security threats, shadow IT, and so on.

To start, IT-driven innovation demands the right technology infrastructure, as Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins stressed in a keynote address.

“Our customers care how they are going to deliver business outcomes,” he said.

That means an infrastructure that ensures agility and security—across the entire network.

“Your perimeter is whatever extreme at which you have recently connected something,” Robbins said. “Whether that is a vehicle, a vending machine, or a traffic light. The entire architecture has to take this into account.”

Daryl Plummer of Gartner added some stark numbers on attempting IT innovation with backward technology.

“Every one dollar in innovation will require another seven dollars in execution,” he warned. “Why is that? It’s because the data center is not modernized. Modernization must come before innovation and transformation.”

Technology Change Meets Culture Change

But technology change must also go hand in hand with culture change.

“Technology firepower has to be aligned with business strategy,” said Gartner’s Mark Raskino. “Yet the conversation between the CIO and CEO is frequently weak and broken.”

However, as many ITxpo attendees and speakers stressed, IT is moving to a more central role at many organizations. This includes having a louder voice on the business side and on the board.

When the right alignment occurs, sit back and watch the synergy fly.

“Some IT projects are really successful at engaging the business early,” said Shabbir Bharmal, chief technology officer, Lockheed Martin, Information Systems and Global Solutions. “When we have user experience sessions with them, we see those projects always succeeding.”

Karen Etzkorn, CIO of HSN, Inc., summed it up, “You need to be a business leader first and a technology leader second.”

Being a business leader, Etzkorn emphasized, means knowing the customer as never before.

“How I am connecting with those connected consumers,” she said, “the trends and the technology, is something that I need to keep my eye on—that’s a very critical piece of strategy for me.”

As Plummer stressed, an open mind is essential to understanding those connected consumers, especially fast-adopting digital natives.

A trend like Pokémon Go, he said, can signal important technologies for the enterprise, in this case, augmented reality.

“Don’t be the guy who said ‘don’t go to the Elvis concert, he shakes his hips,’” Plummer warned. “Don’t be the guy who said ‘that web thing is going to rot your brain.’ Don’t be that person. Recognize that the way that we engage each other is changing.”

When Customers (and Employees) Rule, IT Funds Flow

That means keeping an open mind about the employee experience. To drive innovation and retain talent, CIOs must ensure that their organizations have agile architectures and the right digital tools.

“CIOs are more aligned with business goals than ever before,” said Pankaj Gupta of Cisco. “And pivoting to use technology to support a better customer experience. At the same time, they must be aware of how technology impacts their own workforce. Collaboration, interaction, creativity, and innovation—all depend on technology.”

The reward for CIOs who step up to a more active role? It’s easier to capture the funding for the essential modernization projects cited by Robbins and Plummer.

“Organizations that saved money consistently, and were able to go out into the business and identify opportunities,” said David A. Willis of Gartner, “were awarded with five times the increase in topline IT budget.”

Gates summed up the exciting opportunities for IT—when it is engaged, aligned, and innovative.

“Who would have thought that Starbucks, a coffee company, would pioneer mobile payments?” he said.

“The companies that are going to thrive in the decades ahead—no matter what industry they are in—are the ones who figure out how to use the digital environment to enhance their customer experience.”