The performance criteria for IT leaders is changing.
IT is responsible for installing and maintaining the “plumbing” – the technical infrastructure that keeps the organization running. It also involves embedding that infrastructure into a process that makes the organization more productive.
This has been the case for 20 years and counting.
But, when new tools, trends and security threats emerge all the time, the role of IT is about keeping the organization agile, adaptable and protected against risk.
It’s also about communicating the “why” or “why not” behind technology decisions to the business.
Most IT executives still have legacy systems to maintain. But now, there are a few new categories on the IT leader’s performance evaluation. At our most recent IEF dinner, we hosted IT executives in Washington, D.C. for a conversation about how to adapt to the evolving CIO “report card.”
We discuss their best advice and insights in the article below.
- Don’t succumb to “tech fatigue”
At its simplest, the function of IT is to use technology to enable productivity. Getting an “A” in this category means to provide people with the tools they need to do their jobs.
However, in the modern world of SaaS and the cloud, this can be a moving target.
Aside from the physical aspect of keeping up with the continuous output of cloud tools, features and benefits, there is also a human component. “You have a user adoption problem, where people are tired of change and they don’t really wanna do it,” one IEF member explained.
“It’s tech fatigue.”
Another member in Washington described the effects of this furious pace of change on his organization. “I’m starting to see a whole set of people that used to be technically-competent power-users that can’t keep up.” This gap in technology adoption is in part generational. Younger users categorized as “digital natives” appear to adapt to emerging technology with less discomfort.
As several attendees observed, a direct alignment exists between “tech fatigue” and changing expectations around technology. One member raised the evolution of “search” as an example. “We used to use Boolean search. Then you could use Google.”
He related an anecdote about a co-worker helping his son with a school project. “Most people in this room would write ‘Portuguese flag’ into Google. His son said, ‘Show me a Portuguese flag’ into his phone and it popped up.” Most of the attendees admitted using voice search on their phone in this scenario would not have occurred to them.
For IT leaders, tracking these shifting expectations is critical. Otherwise, they risk wasting their efforts to enable productivity in areas users no longer find relevant. One IEF member observed, “Productivity suites that were all the rage in the ‘80s and ‘90s and early aughts, they’re all of a sudden becoming obsolete.” Instead, users are turning to more cloud-based, collaboration-focused tools. The member described telling his users, “I’m going try to implement a way for you to collaborate better on this spreadsheet,” only to hear: “I don’t collaborate on a spreadsheet anymore. I jump on Slack.”
To stay ahead, IT leaders need to re-calibrate their approach to making an impact with the organization. As several attendees speculated, the role of video will have increasing returns in this area. One member described working with the chairman of their organization to take him from PowerPoint decks suffering from “bullet point mania” to TED Talk-style presentations where a brief clip could launch the next 20 minutes of conversation.
Another commented on the shift from rolling out training on tools and systems via documentation toward the expanding wealth of thorough, specific information available on video sources like YouTube. “It doesn’t matter what subject you’re in, YouTube has everything.” He recanted his experience purchasing a drone that came with no formal documentation, then finding over 10,000 crowdsourced how-to videos online. He speculated that corporate training was headed in the same direction.
“My motto now is: If you don’t watch at least one YouTube video a day to learn something, you’re old.”
FURTHER READING: Wake Up to the Threat of “Cyber Fatigue” (CIO)
- Protect without impeding
Cybersecurity is on the top of every IT executive’s priority list.
Whether they’re remote, or like “crack wireless” they strike from close proximity, the threats are ever-present. Often, the people whose data you’re guarding pose the greatest risk.
“Our CEO and our CFO and the rest of our leaders are targeted at least once a week. Other people are now targeted constantly,” said one IEF member from a not-for-profit organization serving military families. “The level of effort we have to put towards that, it continues to grow. And it’s not just in our security team, it’s in how we approach everything else.”
However, those in attendance agreed cybersecurity is now “table stakes.” Preventing a breach is less an achievement and more a pre-requisite for a passing grade. However, the problem arises when a persistent focus on mitigating risk and exposure gets in the way of the business.
IT leaders operating on fear of exposure hesitate to experiment with emerging technology, even when it offers substantial benefits. In turn, the organization falls back from the leading edge due to security worries around new tools or applications.
“There’s a fear that is put into the minds of IT departments to say, ‘Well you know what? I’m just not going to take the chance with this.’”
IT executives must ask themselves: How much of the constant focus on security is stifling productivity and innovation? As one member explained, even with personal data on the line, “it does concern me to say, ‘Alright, we’re going to stop allowing you to be creative and innovative at the risk that someone might steal your address.”
The solution involves communicating the ownership structures around data, however difficult this may prove. One attendee had trouble convincing a user to provide their social security number (SSN) over the phone for on-boarding purposes. Nonetheless, “she was not afraid, in a moment, to email an unencrypted Excel file with thousands of our members’ SSNs in it.” As another member added:
“We struggle with the awareness that just because it’s in an IT system doesn’t mean it’s IT data.”
- Become an “intelligence broker”
In the past, much of the day-to-day in an IT department concentrated on installing vital systems and keeping them up and running. It was a challenge to maintain the high availability rates required.
Today, the requirements remain, but the challenge has faded somewhat. “In many cases a lot of the technologies that we work with are relatively easy to deploy, and implement, and keep up with,” argued one IEF member.
“The technology leader is the zookeeper. And in reality, what’s happening is technology is getting domesticated. And so, it no longer has to be in the zoo.”
The current challenge is in maintaining control of an expanding web of new and legacy systems. “It’s getting everybody on a common set of tools, on a common set of protocols, be they from a technical sense or in a business process sense.”
The spread of technology throughout every facet of the business erodes the traditional IT structure and in turn loosens the IT executive’s control. One attendee expressed his frustration with the splintered nature of his organizations approach to technology. “Any time we have to do anything, it is a minimum coordination among five teams. And it can be as bad as 13, all with different leadership, all with different priorities, all with different objectives.”
The involvement of many disparate teams and function heads often exacerbates the problem. “You guys, you’re going to go and either, a) make the wrong decision, or b) pick a technology that’s too expensive or doesn’t solve your problem.”
In the next five years, the attendees foresaw the CIO of the future leveraging this advantage into a role as an “intelligence broker” to the organization. Where IT was once in charge of the “plumbing,” it’s now responsible for helping the business navigate to the best decision in any scenario.
IT has the ability to capture and translate the data moving through all the disparate systems in the organization into actionable insights. This capability is a real added value for the department. One member explained the process: “Look, I’ve got 12 different ways I can solve your problem. Let’s figure out the most cost-effective way that gives you all of the capability that you’re looking for.”
FURTHER READING: Why No One Wants to be Chief Information Officer Anymore (Fortune)
- Demonstrating the ROI
Cost optimization will be a deciding factor in evaluating the performance of the CIO. The IT executive will need to demonstrate expertise in measuring and showcasing the output of technology investments.
Several attendees predicted a growing alignment of the CIO’s performance with top line growth and maximizing operational expenses (OPEX) over capital investments (CAPEX). But, rather than focus on IT operations and bottom line costs alone, the IT executive will also assume a greater mandate in producing a strong return on investment (ROI) across the board. A member described several criteria that would be on his annual performance review, “one of them is going to be stabilizing, or even reducing the per capita cost of the IT solutions whatever that happens to be.”
Another key challenge facing the CIO role will be in driving tangible value in solving problems in other areas. One attendee representing the scientific research and engineering sector pointed to a fast-changing talent market as a growing problem area. Often, the specialized skill sets required to solve certain business problems are too expensive to bring on board full-time. “I am never going to be able to hire the skill sets that I’m going to need here, and here, and here.”
Instead, the IT world will transition to an “on-demand” model for in-depth expertise. “I will probably never have working for me directly the same number of people that I have now.” He predicted external vendors will provide the requisite expertise on a project-by-project, “parts and labour” basis or for as few as four to six hours. The CIO skill being evaluated will be in achieving more with less.
Another gap identified by the attendees is in data and analytics. As a member with a private intelligence agency explained his vision in enabling the entire organization to make data-driven decisions. “We’re rolling out technology incrementally to give them the capability. But for them to leverage that requires a different mindset, and a different skill set.”
In his organization’s case, the simple fit was data science. Rather than aggregating data as they’d done in the past, the real value-add for IT was behind visualization and insights. However, as he pointed out, “There’s also a skills gap. That quite frankly has me up at night more than just about anything else.”
FURTHER READING: IT’s Future Value Proposition (McKinsey & Co)
During our conversation in Washington D.C., we heard from IT leaders in a number of verticals about the evolving challenges facing the CIO. Here are some of their key lessons for passing the test:
- Overcome “tech fatigue” by keeping in touch with user expectations
- Security is par for the course. It’s up to you to provide protection without getting in the way
- Focus less on supervision and more on sharing actionable insights
- Optimizing costs is also about showcasing the value behind IT
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