Digital transformation: This is why CIOs need to stay brave and keep on innovating

Innovation is the key, even when things don't go according to plan.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Embracing innovation comes with risk. Exciting product launches don't always go according to plan – and when that happens, you need to act quickly, learn from it and find new ways of making a difference.

That's certainly been the case for Graeme Hackland, CIO at Williams F1, whose team had to pull a recent plan to launch its new FW43B racing car using virtual reality, when leaked images appeared online before the scheduled reveal.

But this episode won't put Hackland off trying to innovate. As the person responsible for IT risk at Williams, he says he will not be saying to his board to steer clear of emerging technologies.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

The firm is already investigating how it might take advantage of artificial intelligence to help improve decision-making processes. There are also plans for more data-led services that will help boost fan engagement. Hackland, in short, is keen to keep on innovating – so long as the risk to the business is kept in check.

"When I get the opportunity at the next board meeting, I'll be encouraging us to stay brave and to keep embracing new technology in this way. The digital transformation journey we're on now is not just about our internal systems. For us, it was always about fan engagement as well," he says.

Williams is far from alone in embracing tech-led innovation. All companies have had to embrace digital transformation during the past 12 months – whether that's in terms of establishing remote working, moving to e-commerce or using new technologies to keep socially distanced customers engaged.  

What's more, that preparedness to try new things isn't going anywhere soon. Gartner says creative thinking will continue to be crucial in the post-COVID age. Companies that balance embrace innovation effectively will be most likely to gain a competitive edge on their competitors.

The key message from Hackland is that, in age of almost-continual digital transformation, CIOs and their organisations must be prepared to try new things. Yes, things can go wrong – but the key to success is being prepared to embrace innovation and to learn lessons when issues arise.

"In Formula 1, every time we make a mistake, we learn from it, we do an after-action review: why did that happen and how do we make sure it doesn't happen again. I think a lot of organisations are starting to do that," he says.

Evidence would suggest that this kind of review process is absolutely critical. As the demand for innovative digital projects quickens, so do the chances of failure. Boston Consulting Group research shows just 30% of digital transformations succeed in achieving their objectives.

That kind of failure rate helps to explain why executives in many large corporations are reluctant to advocate for what they perceive to be risky projects. The Harvard Business Review says they quash new ideas in favour of marginal improvements, cost-cutting and safe investments. 


Hackland: "I'll be encouraging us to stay brave and to keep embracing new technology."

Image: Williams F1

Hackland recognises that it can be difficult for CIOs to gain funding for innovative projects, especially in organisations with competing priorities. But when there's a chance to try something new, the opportunity must be grabbed – not just in terms of the potential benefits it might bring to the company itself but also in terms of professional development.

"You're learning and your people are learning," says Hackland, referring to the importance of experimentation. "They're engaged in something new, they're not just doing lights-on, which I think is really important. They're getting to play with new technologies."

Which brings us back to Williams' recent foray into virtual reality, which was one such attempt to try something new. The intention was to allow users of a bespoke VR app to view and manipulate the new car in its livery in 3D. The app, which was created by an external agency, was made available for fans to download on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

However, when pictures of the FW43B started appearing online, the team couldn't be sure if only the image data for the new car had been unpacked or whether the app itself had been compromised.

"We didn't know if there had been a compromise – we just didn't know it the app was safe, and so you just couldn't deploy it," says Hackland. "If the app had been compromised, and we'd delivered it to our fans, I couldn't have lived with that decision. So the decision was made to pull it."

Hackland says the company's subsequent investigations have shown that the issue was a "data-loss incident" rather than someone hacking the app. Everything connected to the incident took place outside the team's enterprise network.

"This was not about someone getting into our network and taking our data. It's the first time we've done something like this. So yeah, we clearly missed some things that next time – and I hope there is next time – we'll learn from," he says.

"It was just unfortunate. An error was made that exposed the data. We're still investigating and looking at it, and we've got a couple of cybersecurity partners looking at it, too."

Just as Hackland and has team have learnt some important lessons about embracing innovation, so other business leaders will have to ensure the right policies, processes and partners are in place to embrace new ideas in a carefully controlled manner.

And rather than showing the downsides of working with external third-party suppliers, Hackland says the incident shows the importance of IT risk management and the role of trusted partners in trying to help reduce the ongoing cybersecurity threat.

"I've been responsible for IT risk at two racing teams now for the past 15 years, but I don't claim to know everything. The risk landscape changes constantly, which is why we partner with these organisations," he says.

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