Are you an innovator CIO? Here's what it takes

By Alisa Thompson

What keeps a CIO awake at night? For a long time it was the challenge of maintaining core systems while improving efficiency and supporting strategic business objectives. But, more recently, it’s been the threat of disruption. Is our business ready for a digital-enabled and changing economy? Could, and should, technology turn our business model on its head?

The problem is, the rate of technology development means you need the foresight and energy of an entrepreneur just to keep up with competitors, let alone outrun them. And if you do want to disrupt with digital, as six in 10 businesses do, then you need to do something very difficult indeed: think like a visionary, deliver change and make it stick, and uphold business as usual – all at the same time.

It doesn’t sound possible, but it is. One household-name retailer gave its IT leadership the license to focus on digital-enabled transformation and has since adopted groundbreaking approaches to online and mobile shopping. The chain is beating its sales records, while BHS, Austin Reed and other high street retailers go bust.

So what does the CIO-as-innovator look like? The good news is that most of the technical and engineering skills are the same. But real innovation is about much more than technical brilliance. Tomorrow's CIOs need to talk the language of business, tell better stories and bring people from inside and outside the organisation together.

Turning ideas into commercial reality

IT has always needed to demonstrate its value and make a case for new technologies. But the outlandish possibilities and high risk of emerging technology makes justifying investments much more difficult. Enhanced business skills, and no shortage of persuasiveness, are required to secure backing for an idea that challenges the business model.

The CIO of a consumer goods company would be a good example. After focusing for decades on running effective supply chain businesses, some sector leaders are installing sensors in their products to develop software-based services and break into the connected homes market. There are groundbreaking applications for technology here – imagine, for example, adding sensors into products that could alert someone to a flood in their home – how do you, as a CIO, prove the business case for something that could shift the company from providing products to delivering services?

It's the same challenge for CIOs in other sectors who recognise they can improve employee productivity through innovative technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence solutions to automate call centres. Again, the ideas are exciting – but can you make the case for investment and get buy-in to a whole new way of working that requires changes beyond technology to roles, processes, and introduces different risks?

Making friends and influencing people

As well as justifying bold investments, innovator CIOs need to overcome resistance among employees to adopting new initiatives. To do that, they need to be strong at communicating and building strong relationships with stakeholders. Partly this means storytelling – explaining clearly why one course of action makes sense.

Yet soft skills like these don’t always sit comfortably with the engineering mindset traditionally associated with computational thinking and process design. Perhaps one issue is that there’s still a lack of gender diversity among IT leaders. Research suggests that just 16% of CIOs are women. This supply challenge will take time to change, especially when fewer than one in five computer science undergraduates are female.

But one thing that CIOs can address is to proactively create more diverse IT teams that balance hard and soft skills. Technology projects need a wide range of skills – not everyone has to be a coder. Some will, for example, naturally gravitate to communication or stakeholder management, roles which are critical to drive change. Showing that you need and value these skills will help to build diverse teams.

Building new networks

PA research showed that, to innovate successfully, you need to put it at the heart of your culture and mission. Innovation has to become business as usual.

One reason why this is so difficult is that organisations don’t have all the skills in-house to carry out truly disruptive innovation, like cannibalising existing business lines, by themselves. But they do recognise they need to innovate to survive. So how do they self-disrupt? To find the answer, a growing number are working in partnership with external start-ups and innovators and drawing on their expertise.

As an innovator CIO, that means creating ‘ecosystems’ of external innovation providers and learning to act as an interface or facilitator between the outside and the inside.

This way of working does, however, present cultural challenges. Even if you’re a relatively young CIO – born in 1971, a mid-stage Generation X – it’s likely you’ll still have spent much of your working life within a traditional corporation. Learning to work with more informal start-ups – and bringing some of that culture in-house – will mean learning from Millennials.

Act now

To become more innovative, companies need to broaden the makeup and talent of their IT leadership, but perhaps there’s an elephant in the room: if you were a young and ambitious IT professional with a desirable mix of interpersonal, technical and commercial skills, would you really want to work for a large corporation?

Wouldn’t it be more exciting to use that energy to launch your own start-up? It's easier to do that, and scale globally, than ever before. So, unless you have a culture and mission that appeals to bright young IT professionals, you can’t assume they‘ll want to work for you. Making being part of your team attractive to the next generation is critical.

About the authors

Alisa Thompson PA IT transformation expert

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