The job of an IT executive is sometimes a thankless one. The pace of change in the business ecosystem puts pressure on the IT department to implement better technology faster.
Meanwhile, line-of-business (LOB) managers procure their own unauthorized software. Management delays investment in back-end infrastructure. A single email attachment could expose the entire organization to the latest ransomware – or worse.
But, technology is the fuel that keeps the business running. As such, IT has a critical role to play on the leadership team. At our latest IEF dinner, we talked to IT executives in Denver about meeting the challenges of IT leadership today and how they envision the role of a CIO five years in the future.
Below are some of their strategies and key insights.
Learn to “weaponize” IT
Today, the IT department spends much of its energy on “table stakes.” For many, keeping the basic technology infrastructure up and running is the foremost priority.
But, a growing number of IT leaders are embracing what one attendee termed “weaponizing” IT. Put another way, finding opportunities to use technology to advance the goals of the business has become a fundamental part of the IT executive’s skill set.
To one IEF member representing the cyber security industry, the concept of “weaponizing” IT means enhancing the value IT brings to the organization. Through initiatives in automation and self-service workflows, the IT organization makes life easier for internal departments, as well as customers. In this way, IT uses technology to help the business “out-punch their weight.”
For example, one member in the co-location and cloud services sector explained how his department applied VR technology to enable virtual tours of the data center. The result was a powerful tool for the sales team to take to prospects.
“To me it’s about how we help the company drive the business strategy to achieve the growth goals,” offered one member. “How do I take a professional services organization and give them the tools and things they need in order make that business run faster?”
To another member, “weaponizing IT” is also about reducing costs and driving efficiency. Whether by consolidating vendors or outsourcing non-core elements of the business, IT is equipped to play a lead role in reducing overhead. The objective is to reverse the perception of IT as a cost center to the business. As one member put it:
“Maybe we’re not actually making money for the company, but every dollar I save is three bucks you don’t have to go out and earn.”
Further Reading: Modernizing IT: How to Thrive as a CIO “Value Broker” (CIO)
Stay off the radar
Unexpected cost overruns. Catastrophic system outages. Newsworthy data breaches.
These are the things that keep IT executives up at night. Nonetheless, the business expects day-to-day operations to remain safe, secure and in working order.
Problems arise, as one IEF member explained, when the business sees fit to divert IT investment to other, revenue-generating areas.
“Meanwhile, we run this risk where the backend infrastructure can have some holes in it. And that’s the thing that you’re really worried about day in, day out.”
For the IT leader, balancing risk management and maintaining credibility with the organization is paramount. Surprises are the enemy.
One IEF member described leading a migration to Office 365. After the project, he discovered there had been no process for de-commissioning the company’s 1,600-plus now-unused mailboxes. According to the member, this led to unexpected cost overruns and some interesting conversations with the CFO.
The attendees laid out their priorities for staying off the executive radar screen. Number one is security. Ensuring the protection of clients and their data comes before everything else. “If we have anything that shows a violation or penetration, we are in jeopardy. Our credibility begins to slide at that point.”
The goal of the IT leader should be to simplify however and wherever possible.
One member argued for consolidating equipment, data, virtual and physical infrastructure into a safe, defensible space. “You take that house that’s got fifty windows and four doors, and you make it a barn with two windows and two doors, and you can control everything.”
Pursuing this goal not only reduces cost but also lowers risk, a mission-critical result in today’s fraught security environment. The member described a straightforward approach:
“Reduce risk, wherever possible. I can’t be on the front page of the New York Times.”
The second priority is providing the business with a robust, reliable technology platform. As one attendee remarked, “I always tell the team in IT that we’re only as good as our service desk.” Failing at basic systems support cancels out goodwill earned through successful IT-led initiatives.
“There’s a set of table stakes that if you can’t get right, you’re done. You can’t talk about large-scale enterprise applications if somebody’s laptop doesn’t boot up.”
Integrating a system like Salesforce and processing a password reset are of equal importance to an end user who can’t get their work done.
Take a seat at the head table
Today, IT is a common thread than runs throughout the business. As one member pointed out, “If electricity runs through it then you probably own it.” Technology pervades almost every department and role in the organization.
As a result, the business holds IT to a level of responsibility different to other departments. “We’re the guys who keep the computers running and the fans blowing and the lights on.” However, our attendees recognized that this circumstance is already changing. When asked how they envision the role of a CIO in three-to-five years, they described an IT executive with a much more dynamic and strategic position.
The CIO of the future is more likely to be a CDO, or “Chief Digital Officer” with a primary mandate in driving digital transformation of the company. A core component of this mandate will be working with the executive leadership team (ELT) to answer the question, “How do I make the business successful?”
The CDO will have approval on all strategic decisions, with IT becoming the department of “no” in cases where data security or integrity are at risk. Our attendees agreed that the vendor execution will evolve into a C-level accountability. Alongside the CDO will be a “Chief Outsourcing Officer” tasked with selecting partners to manage non-core elements of the business. “A big part of the strategy is: ‘How do I get as much as possible outsourced out of my immediate fingerprint?’”
Where in the past, IT executives were focused on implementing and controlling centralized systems, the CDO of the future will be concerned more with data and data interfaces. Much of the role will comprise solving the puzzle of where data fits within the company and how it moves in and out. IT’s approach to data will be holistic and focused on developing the connective tissue between core systems such as Box, NetSuite and OpenAir.
As one attendee predicted, “The future is in ‘How do I get real data that I can feed to the business that gives them something that they can hold onto and propel the business forward on?’” Data management will be about integrity, governance and prudence.
Above all, driving best practices throughout the organization will be pivotal. To this end, so is recruiting the right people. Our IEF members advised interviewing for the “Four As” – aptitude, attitude, accountability and urgency, and adoption, is key to finding the right people who fit with your organization.
Further Reading: Rising to and Beyond CIO (WSJ CIO Journal)
This concludes our IEF Denver event, where we dove into a dynamic discussion focused on the evolution of the CIO. Here are some of the key insights from our participants:
- IT should always be answering the question, “How do I make the business successful?”
- For better or worse, IT owns the end user experience
- Reducing security risk and maintaining a reliable technology platform are the top priorities
- Technology is fuel for the entire organization – make it count!
Want to join the discussion? #CIOTableTalk