CIO Strategies: Four ways to help tech engage with business

​Tech chiefs need to make an impact beyond their own team. Here's how.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

"Youthful exuberance, brogues, and a beard are no replacement for business experience."

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

CIOs are bombarded by digital innovation, so what is the best way for IT leaders to embrace the power of technology-enabled transformation and to be a genuine agent for change?

We speak to four IT leaders about best practice examples, and some of the techniques that can help drive positive change in the business.

1. Use your experience to bring innovation to the table

Former CIO turned digital advisor Ian Cohen says the best IT leaders are genuine change agents with the capacity to shape their firms' digital journeys. "How on Earth are you going to engage if you just sit in corporate HQ?" he says.

"How can you possibly expect to work with the startup community if you don't go and experience this space yourself? It's not enough to read. Go to a meetup or hackathon and put yourself in a new and potentially uncomfortable space."

The most successful IT chiefs do more than simply talk about potential. These leaders bring innovation to their business through labs, proof of concept activities, and real-world pilots. These change agents have experience of leading technology-enabled business transformation time and time again.

"Organisations still need executives with scars of past implementations -- youthful exuberance, brogues, and a beard are no replacement for business experience. The forward facing, engaged, and experimental CIO, who isn't simply acting like a traditional IT director, has all the elements required to galvanise the various activities of a firm in the digital age," says Cohen.

"These leaders get the complexity of the digital age but can marry this potential with the opportunity that comes from unlocking the richness of the data and transactions that live inside the existing enterprise IT. A forward-thinking CIO can be the lightning rod for change. If you're an executive who can do that, then the prospects are very bright."

2. Transfer knowledge between functional teams and departments

Mark Ridley, group technology officer at venture builder Blenheim Chalcot Accelerate, says innovation is a slippery concept. While boards prioritise change as a strategic objective, they often fail to understand how innovation comes from the creative fusion of ideas and concepts.

Ridley says the great news for IT leaders in modern businesses is that they have exposure to creativity across the organisation. Technology is now pervasive across all departments in any business. This broad base allows the CIO to actively transfer knowledge between functional teams and departments.

"By learning from experts within the company, and rolling out new systems and processes within the business, the CIO can inspire and energise the entire organisation," he says. "CIOs -- with their responsibility for technology and data -- are in the best possible place to lead business change.

Like Cohen, Ridley believes CIOs can grow and challenge their own world view even further with exposure to ideas and challenges from the start-up world. "The ceaseless experimentation and furious pace of young startups, all unscarred by the reality of legacy systems, gives the CIO even more opportunity to take inspiration and apply it to their existing domains," he says.

3. Bring the best of technology to commercial discussions

Martin Draper, technology director at luxury retailer Liberty, says IT leadership always involves a contrast between operation and innovation. Balancing the requirements of the two is challenging in a fast-moving retail business. "I don't get away with ignoring tills, servers, and networks," he says.

However, Draper believes on-demand IT provides new scope for CIOs to act as change agents. "The beauty of modern services-based approaches to IT is that the overhead of running an operation is smaller than ever before," he says. "I have more capacity to deliver the new stuff. Before the cloud, it was a real struggle to keep the lights on and to run with new ideas."

Draper believes IT leaders who embrace digital play a crucial role in technology-led business transformation. "We are the change agents," he says. "We get to meet and collaborate with people in the market. Our job is to bring the best of those ideas to commercial discussions in the business."

Prior to joining Liberty in 2016, Draper spent 13 years at Harrods and before that a decade running a business intelligence consultancy. Draper says running his own business allowed him to work across most verticals. He believes retail provides a unique opportunity for the CIO as change agent.

"You can't throw money at problems as a retail IT leader -- you must create very innovative solutions to your business challenges," he says. "It's an attractive role for a CIO because you're always trying to do something different. And luxury retail has a specific benefit in that it's all about knowing your customer, providing the right products and a great experience."

4. Help the business understand risk versus return

Omid Shiraji, interim CIO at Camden Council in London, says IT leaders who want to make the most of innovation must avoid simply focusing on bits and bytes, especially when they're with their executive peers. "Whenever I meet a line-of-business director I try to ask them not to talk about technology," he says.

"I want to understand their drivers and know how open they'd be to change. Because you're seen as the technology specialist, a business peer will often want to talk with you about technology, but that requires push back. If you do, you get great conversations about priorities, challenges and the art of the possible."

Shiraji says the best information leaders help their front-line colleagues to understand how IT can be used to help create improvements across the broader business. "Advocacy, challenge and bit of disruptive thinking - that can be difficult in the highly-regulated sectors, but you do have to challenge how things have already been done," he says.

"Also, a change agent helps the organisation to think differently about how it invests in change. Typically, the organisation will look at IT spend and think in a more portfolio-type way. Smart CIOs help the business understand the risk of investment versus the potential return."

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