Feature Story

The Challenge of IT Culture Change

The Gartner Symposium/ITXPO featured no shortage of tech talk. But culture and talent still dominated.

“What we really value is the ability not just to understand technology,” Fareed Zakaria said in a keynote address at Gartner Symposium/ITXPO in Orlando last week, “but to understand how humans use technology.”

Zakaria, the political scientist and author, cited innovations from Singer sewing machines to the iPhone, in which the inventors combined their technical prowess with creativity, design sense, and empathy for the end user.

All of which ties into some of the key challenges facing today’s CIOs.

Among the more than 9,000 technology leaders at ITXPO, there was plenty of discussion about the massive tech changes driven by AI, blockchain, cloud, quantum computing and other emerging technologies — along with ongoing challenges like security and rising complexity.

But the themes of culture and talent loomed particularly large, and spoke to the expanding responsibilities of today’s CIO.

Guillermo Diaz Jr., Cisco’s CIO, poked some good-natured fun at those who predicted only a few years ago that the CIO would fall away in importance. “Well, you hear it loud and clear now,” he said, “the CIO is critical to the organization’s transformation.”

But with that elevated role, Diaz believes, comes big new responsibilities.

Diaz cited a Cisco study of global business and IT leaders who said the No. 1 skill lacking in CIOs was not technical.

“Technology is foundational to everything we do,” Diaz said, “but what [business leaders] need from you the most, the most critical thing is business acumen. To understand our business, help us translate from this technology stuff to how it’s going to drive value in our business.”

Technology is foundational to everything we do, but what [business leaders] need from you the most...is business acumen.

To do that, said Kristin Moyer of Gartner, requires a complete “culture hack” of IT.

“By culture hacking,” she clarified, “we don’t mean finding a vulnerable point to break into a system. It’s about finding vulnerable points in your culture and turning them into real change that sticks.”

That means rethinking your talent and skills, along with the fundamental ways in which IT interacts with the business and its customers (both internal and external).

As Scott Guthrie of Microsoft put it: “The culture has to keep transforming. It means having a philosophy of putting the customer at the center of everything we do.”

Empathy for the End User

Diaz called culture change the hardest part of digital transformation. But added that he’s deeply committed to the process.

“I’m constantly asking myself these questions,” he said, “are we building the future of IT? Are we building dynamic teams and trust, transforming our skills? And are we building diversity, diversity of ethnicity, diversity of gender, diversity of thought and leadership?”

To help illustrate how those efforts are evolving, Diaz shared the stage with a diverse group of teammates. All spoke of taking on challenges that at first seemed daunting, but which in the end proved to be highly satisfying, while deeper awareness and skills.

For example, Ravelle Kelley, a software engineer with a purely technical background, spoke of working closely with business users, not always a traditional interaction for IT.

“As a back-end engineer, I was used to thinking, ‘if the tech’s cool they’ll like it,’” she said. “It was an eye-opening experience to have to think more about user experience.”

Along the way, Kelley visited five countries to get a better idea of the unique challenges faced by a diverse community of users. “It’s easy to think about customers who look like us, live in the same place, work the way we do,” she said. “But I learned about what it’s like to work in Krakow or Jerusalem, and the kinds of challenges they face.”

The Power of Diversity

Diaz and Kelley were not the only attendees to emphasize diversity. Gartner’s De’onn Griffin spoke of creating a “fail-safe environment, in which team members are empowered to make decisions, and it’s safe to propose ideas.”

That means people from all backgrounds and with different personality types and ideas. As a CIO, she stressed, you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and be aware of unconscious bias.

In addition to embracing diversity in their own departments, IT needs to enable diversity across the organization and beyond, through their technology foundation and collaboration solutions.

Cisco’s Sri Srinivasan spoke of IT’s role in supporting a workforce experience that is secure, seamless, and borderless.

“There is an immense war for talent out there,” Srinivasan said. “Organizations need the employee experience that will keep these very eclectic yet very efficient employees happy and having fun on a regular basis.”

A Never-Ending Pace of Change

In another keynote address, the futurist Michio Kaku spoke of the many wondrous breakthroughs we can expect from AI, quantum computing, nano, and other emerging technologies — everything from flying cars and interactive “thinking” wallpaper to augmented human intelligence and the eradication of many diseases.

But he acknowledged that change can be scary, especially when it threatens to replace existing jobs.

Kaku stressed that human qualities like creativity, empathy, and wisdom won’t be replaced by machines.

If you ignore change, you are welcome to go bankrupt.

“Intellectual and creative capital matter,” he warned, “commodity capital doesn’t.”

But he added, “If you ignore change, you are welcome to go bankrupt.”

For CIOs, then, the stakes are high. But it all comes down to being that transformation agent, that link between the possibilities of technology and how the workforce and the business will adopt and use them.

Not to mention, clarifying what those possibilities are, and just what they can do for the business.

As Irving Tyler of Gartner said, nearly all companies are interested in transformation. But many hit a “digital wall.” It’s up the CIO, he stressed, to avoid being “another brick in that wall.”

Digital transformation is a team sport, he said. And the strategic CIO needs to be a technology guide, an agent for the right partners, and a talent scout.

The biggest challenge for CIOs, he added, is the “mindset shift,” in reimagining their current role.

As so many said at ITXPO, the new culture of IT — and the expanding role of the CIO — are challenging. But they open the way to a more dynamic, creative, and ultimately satisfying role impacting the entire organization.

Diaz quoted one of his own mentors in saying, “leaders are the message.”

“It’s incumbent on us as leaders,” Diaz concluded, “to inspire our teams. I have to always be looking at the industry, learning from my peers at an event like this. We’re all in this together. I think the biggest impact we can make as technology and digital leaders is to help transform our businesses. And we’re at a perfect time to do it.”