Engage or die: Five lessons from a CIO innovation workshop

A workshop for CIOs yielded a set of real world lessons for IT, lines of business, and senior executives who want to create a high-performing organization based on technology.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

"Complexity" defines the reality of life for most CIOs. Under pressure to increase both efficiency and innovation in an environment where reducing costs is mandatory, CIOs face a unique set of challenges. These conflicting goals symbolize enterprise confusion around IT and the appropriate role of technology in business.

Many organizations view IT is an expensive necessity that manages infrastructure, makes sure wiring and phone systems work properly, and provides help desk support. Often, however, these same organizations demand that IT pursue innovation and offer strategic benefit, creating a chronc conflict between short-term requirements and long-term objectives. These demands — IT as a source of cost savings vs. IT the great innovator — sometimes appear mutually exclusive, creating stress for both IT and senior leadership in the organization as a whole.

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We pulled together a workshop to explore these issues with innovative CIOs, primarily in higher education. The workshop title, CIO Success and Relevance in a Cloud/Social/Mobile World, reflects the importance of combining long-term business innovation with maintaining successful daily operations in IT. The CIO of Seton Hill University, Phil Komarny, supplied the venue and Enterasys Networks, which has close ties to higher education, sponsored the event to reduce the cost to attendees. The workshop co-presenter was Gene Kim, an entrepreneur and author of several books on improving IT operations.

Key lessons of the workshop were based on the report, Innovation in Higher Education: Beyond the Social Campus, in which we interviewed a dozen innovative CIOs on balancing daily operations with driving strategic contribution.

The workshop covered these areas:

  • Strategic business imperatives in higher education
  • Business demands on IT and the reality of chronic conflict
  • Transform the IT organization
  • Transform the institution
  • Social influence and the modern CIO

Five key lessons from the workshop

Among the many issues we discussed during the full day event, five points stand out to help CIOs remain relevant, strategic, and influential:

1. Gain fluency with organizational strategic objectives. To deliver maximum value and remain relevant, IT must understand and further the strategic interests of the organization. In most organizations, this requires the CIO to translate organizational business objectives into specific initiatives that IT carries out through various projects. In higher education, these objectives include revenue activities, such as student recruitment and fund raising, and innovation imperatives such as finding new methods for delivering classroom education. Relevance is a natural consequence of IT helping the larger organization achieve its strategic goals; when IT focuses primarily on its own needs, CIO relevance cannot arise.

2. Beware of invisible IT commitments to break core, chronic conflict. Many IT obligations extend beyond obvious strategic projects and initiatives. These commitments include "hidden" infrastructure such as maintaining phone systems, disaster planning, network repair, remote access, and other obligations that people outside IT take for granted. The business may not be aware of these invisible obligations, even though they can drain budgets and create competing priorities that interfere with IT's ability to deliver more strategic initiatives. This chronic conflict of innovation vs. stability is illustrated below:

CIO chronic conflict

To overcome this problem, the CIO should engage stakeholders in a discussion on the impact that competing priorities have on IT service levels and its capacity to deliver strategic contribution. Building transparency into IT operations is key to balancing IT commitments, resource requirements, plans, schedules, and business expectations.

3. Transform IT to deliver responsive, high-performance service. Many organizations place mutually exclusive goals on IT: simultaneously deliver innovation, maintain daily operations, and reduce costs. To interrupt this cycle the CIO should find ways for IT to deliver a fast flow of features from the business into production while ensuring that all IT activities support organizational goals. Changing IT processes to achieve this goal may require staff to learn new skills and demands strong relationships with senior leaders outside IT. The bottom line: in today's world, IT must do more than provide reliable, stable, resilient and secure IT services although certainly that's a critical part of the mandate. Ultimately, CIO value derives from IT's ability to match projects and deliverables with business needs and strategic imperatives.

4. Use high-performance IT to drive broader organizational transformation. The best CIOs deliver, and even anticipate, what executives on the business or administration side may need, which opens the door to participating in conversations where leadership establishes top agenda items for the organization. Developing trust relationships with non-technical executives is essential to opening lines of communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing between CIO and the business. High value IT happens when the CIO posseses the ability to engage senior decision makers as an equal partner in the dialog that establishes organization-wide strategic goals and plans.

5. Understand the dynamics of strategic influence. Without influence, it is impossible for a CIO to drive broader transformation outside of IT. As shown in the diagram below, influence comes from four points: relevance, credibility, relationships, and trust:

CIO components of influence

To activate influence, first build a foundation of high-performance IT based on meeting the strategic needs of your organization. Doing so creates the conditions from which influence and strategic partnership can arise. Although influence has its own dynamics, it requires the foundaiton of solid IT execution and delivery.

Final thoughts

Despite the complexity of achieving CIO value, relevance, and influence IT is a service function and success demands that we adopt a spirit of genuine humility and helpfulness toward users. In the innovation report mentioned earlier, Erich Matola, now CIO of Colorado State University at Pueblo, summarizes this perspective: "we also have to be a service organization and … really humble in a sense that everybody, all your customers are important… I instill that in my staff…"

Workshop co-presenter, Gene Kim, commented that every modern organization relies on IT to meet its strategic goals. He offers a strategy for overcoming the chronic conflict between short- and long-term business demands:

CIOs are challenged with enabling these goals as well as running daily business operations. To overcome conflicts between the organization's long-term needs and IT requirements to meet short-term goals, CIOs must reduce innovation cycle time while preserving the stability and security of the production environment, which requires paying down technical debt, and creating a culture of using technology to help the organization win."

The workshop presented a simple message of CIO value and relevance: embrace the business goals, deliver great quality of service, and build bridges outside IT through communication. These focal points are truly the fast path to CIO relevance and IT success.

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