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Introducing the new CIO: Chief Ideas Officer

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on September 25, 2017 by Erika Van Noort

I have my eyes closed. I’m imagining an executive meeting in the boardroom of a large international logistics company that moves things around the world.  It’s 1999, and the head of IT is about to provide an update on their preparedness for Y2K.  So much is riding on everything being up-and-running at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 2000, and it falls to her and her team.  At the end of her update, she also mentions reading that Amazon, “you know, the company that started selling books online,” just announced their move beyond books.  She regards this as an indicator that her company needs to step up its shipping and logistics game to scale to potential demand.  Maybe it’s time to revisit a partnership?  A few looks pass between the other team members. She suggests connecting with the SVP of Sales offline to discuss further. He agrees. The meeting concludes. But, the follow-up meeting never gets the attention it deserves.

I know many of us tire of hearing about Amazon and how it disrupts individual markets as well as business strategy in general. But, there are things Amazon can teach all of us.  One of my favorite quotations from former Intel CEO, Andy Grove, is:

“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”

I’m sure every IT leader spends time thinking about what disruption means for their business.  We hear about this time and again at our Softchoice Innovation Executive Forum dinners across North America.  The statement is often followed by discussion around the pressure and demands on their own time and their teams’,  with basic organizational needs and “keeping the lights on.” Within most organizations, IT is still viewed at as a cost center. We hear about IT departments under constant pressure to reduce costs, which in turn means their focus is on the “now” and not so much on the future.

One of our leaders sent me an article from earlier this year, titled “Why Amazon is Eating the World.” She and I often talk about the skills demand and overall business-shaping needed to stay competitive from a human capital perspective.  When I read the larger article, I paused at the following statement from Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. … [I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’

Imagine if all IT leaders, and their colleagues on the executive team, asked themselves the second question.  I’m guessing it would drive a very different conversation.

IT leadership within organizations has been interesting to watch.  We have the Chief Information Officer (CIO), the Chief Security Officer (CSO), the Chief Digital Officer, (CDO) and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). One member at a recent IEF Dinner asked “Why are we still calling it IT? Should we not be calling ourselves Business Technology or Business Solutions?” Would Amazon be where it is today if they just had IT?  Regardless of your title, it’s about your role and how your role can challenge the business and support it moving forward.  You have an opportunity not only to see the bigger picture (after all, you have the benefit of knowing how it all works behind the scenes – very few have this window), but also to connect the dots within the business and compare your performance to where others are going.

As you think about this, reflect on another one of Andy Grove’s quotes:

“There is at least one point in the history of any company when you have to change dramatically to rise to the next level of performance. Miss that moment – and you start to decline”

Maybe it’s time to introduce the new CIO – your Chief Ideas Officer!


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