Feature Story

How CIOs Can Surf a Tidal Wave of Change

To succeed today, IT needs networking skills, as much as a modernized network.

Security is a constant headache. Disruptions fly out of left field. And new technologies promise never-ending complexity.

But the news isn’t all bad for CIOs.

“Some people are going to be grabbing their surfboards and able to ride this tidal wave successfully,” said Peter High, president of the CIO advisory firm Metis Strategy.

Those who adapt and change with the new demands placed on IT will catch the wave successfully. That includes driving innovation and impacting the business in new ways.

Those who don’t, High warned, “will be washed away.”

High, who is the author of Implementing World Class IT Strategy: How IT Can Drive Organizational Innovation, sees this as an exciting time for IT, despite the challenges.

“I think the CIO is in many ways structurally in an ideal position to add value to the other divisions of the organization,” High said, “the functional areas, the business units, operating companies, however the organization might be structured.”

That means rethinking some fundamental assumptions about IT. Starting with a better understanding of those whom IT ultimately serves.

According to High, if you ask IT professionals today who their customers are, “their answer will be the colleagues within the enterprise that they are serving. I think what is unfortunate about that is the declaration of distance between IT and where the ultimate value is created.”

But how can IT move beyond understanding only their internal users and gain a clearer picture of the company’s external customers?

They can start within their own organization’s ability to speak to the end customer.

“No matter whether you’re B-to-B, B-to-C, B-to-G,” High recommended, “find opportunities to work with your marketing department, your sales department, attending sales calls, listening in on customer calls to understand what are the sources of frustration, where are their issues.”

Out of the Data Center and into the Field

And then take a field trip.

“I would also say it’s essential to go out into the field as an IT leader,” High urged, using retail as a prime example.

“If you are the CIO of a retailer,” he added, “then having your team spend time out in the stores interacting with associates as well as with customers becomes an essential and invaluable source of insight,” he continued.

High sees the value of IT watching customers use technology that IT is implementing, recommending, and funding.

IT’s traditional skill sets didn’t always include connecting with business units or outside customers. Today, however, such interactions are critical.

“It is the softer skills that oftentimes IT has not been trained for,” said High.

Of course, “hard” IT skills remain as essential as ever, especially as cutting-edge technologies begin to drive real-world disruption.

“It really means rethinking people, process, and technology,” High said.

A recent study by Cisco found that as employee and consumer behaviors change, companies are responding by changing how they operate. And that change applies to IT as well.

This includes finding the right talent to help IT catch the next big wave.

“It’s essential that you hire people who are familiar with artificial intelligence or machine learning. People who are deep into data analytics, people who are oriented towards a higher level of strategic value that can be derived from better use of information and technology,” High emphasized.

How the CIO’s Staff Can Impact the Business Through Innovation

According to Peter High, president of the CIO advisory firm Metis Strategy, there are three things a CIO can do to drive innovation through the IT organization:

  1. Energize the Base: Make sure that the foundation that you are laying can be built upon with much greater confidence. As an IT leader, you still need to have good governance practices. You need ensure you are modernizing the technology, and simplifying the infrastructure.
  2. Practice the Ancient Art of Weaving: Weave yourself into the fabric of the strategic plan for the rest of the enterprise and the rest of the divisions of the organization. And make sure that as IT is developing and investing in new technologies, that they are helping the company at large to see opportunities and stave off issues more readily.
  3. Always Experiment: There are a number of CIOs at companies like ANTHOM, Vanguard, and ADP who have developed innovation labs. Others develop tiger teams or skunk works on a smaller scale. The goal is to keep IT teams in constant experimentation mode, testing new practices, processes, and technologies.

The Network Payoff

Incorporating those newer technologies demands a network foundation that is agile, automated, and secure.

“Older organizationstend to have older technology that they are using,” High said. “As a result. . .they tend to be held back by the technical debt associated with it.”

Investments in new architectures can seem daunting, but High stressed that savings down the road will be big.

“It tends to be a difficult undertaking,” he continued, “but one that’s very important to start in order to modernize the technology, so that a greater percentage of the overall budget can be put towards more innovative, forward-thinking investments.”

Another big return on infrastructure investments? Security.

“From a security perspective,” High added, “one of the best things you can do is introduce enterprise architecture. In so doing, making sure that you are simplifying the architecture wherever possible. That really is a way of making your life a lot simpler, and making sure that you are creating this hygiene within your enterprise, that will facilitate security to a much greater extent.”

In the end, High sees exciting opportunities for IT to be front and center in the organization, driving innovation and supporting new customer and workforce experiences.

“I think we will find there are fewer conversations in any part of the enterprise,” High concluded, “asking themselves does IT really matter, does technology really matter, does information really matter to our business, a question that was offered without a trace of irony not so long ago.”