Technology is just a tool. In the end, the success of any implementation rests squarely with the employees who adopt and adapt IT for their purposes.
As Bruna Pellicci, IT director at law firm Ashurst and a leading advocate for the importance of social engagement in the technology-enabled workplace puts it: "IT is all about people. Who creates the computers and the applications? It's people. And who makes use of those systems and services in the business? Once again, it's people."
Pellicci's summary seems like common sense, yet the human factor is easy to forget. The rapid pace of technological development can be witnessed all around us, from the emergence of mobility to the rise of wearable devices and the Internet of Things.
Experts bandy about phrases like 'information revolution' and 'digital transformation' liberally, as if the slogans provide some sort of easy shorthand to describe the changes that have taken, and continue, to take place.
But no technological transformation is a given.
The role IT plays in society is in fact the result of a complex relationship between humans and technologies. So, how can we make sense of that relationship? And what strategies are successful CIOs adopting to ensure people are put first?
Using social theory to make sense of the role of humans
Some sense of perspective comes in the form of actor-network theory (ANT), produced by social theorists such as Michel Serres and Bruno Latour. ANT tries to explain how technologies can only be understood through the way they are linked into social contexts, such as the workplace. Writing in the mid-1900s, Sir Nigel Thrift, vice chancellor of the University of Warwick and a leading human geographer, provided a succinct summary:
"No technology is ever found working in splendid isolation as though it is the central node in the social universe. It is linked - by the social purposes to which it is put - to humans and other technologies of different kinds. It is linked to a chain of different activities involving other technologies. And it is heavily contextualised. Thus the telephone, say, at someone's place of work had (and has) different meanings from the telephone in, say, their bedroom, and is often used in quite different ways."
In short, to speak of the 'impact' of a system or service on a business is futile. Technologies have to be understood within the context of use, a seemingly simple fact that is often overlooked.
CIOs, other c-suite executives and specific line-of-business employees might buy systems and services, but the way these tools are adopted and adapted is totally reliant on human agency. To make the most of IT, CIOs must prioritise close working relationships with their colleagues and peers.
Putting human agency into practice
As mentioned earlier, Pellicci focuses on engagement in her role as IT director at Ashurst. She recognises that successful CIOs are reliant on a great team and she works across the organisation to ensure all human agents have a say.
To support creative and open thinking at Ashurst, Pellicci is aiming to create a cross-department innovation team. Provisionally titled 'Geek Group', she is looking to bring people from the IT team together with staff from across the rest of the business, including partners, lawyers and support staff.
Pellicci is also looking for experts from outside the business to help manage the sessions. Run on a quarterly basis, the sessions will last for a couple of hours and provide a sanity check. "The 'geek group' is a sounding board," she says.
"You need a team of champions for IT across the organisation. It's all about finding out whether the people across the business have got the technology they need in order to complete their tasks to the best of their ability. It's also about discovering whether they might have other great ideas about how the firm can make the most of IT."
Understanding motivations and providing a platform to learn
Like Pellicci, Sean Harley, IT director at publishing firm Top Right Group, recognises the key role of human agency. "Successful IT management is all about the people," he says, suggesting CIOs must understand the motivations of individuals both inside and outside the workplace.
"I personally spend fifteen minutes with everyone that's about to join the organisation - and that's before we make an offer. Whether it's a help desk employee or an infrastructure director, it's crucial that I understand what they're like as an individual and what their interests are, and not just what they're like in a workplace," he says.
Harley says his checks help ensure the HR team have explained to candidates the nature of the role and the likely pressures. "We're a very driven organisation and we're very busy. So, I reinforce that message. I want people to be resilient. People need to be a good fit culturally," he says.
"We like all-rounders - people who've done a bit of technology and a bit of process strategy. We like people who can teach people from their own experiences and who are willing to learn. And opportunity is also crucial. If you don't given people the chance to try things, you'll get churn - and churn costs the business money."
Sourcing talent to make the most of new opportunities
Former Tullow CIO Andrew Marks is another executive who is keen for technology chiefs to pay attention to the recruitment process. To help businesses make the most of digital technology, he believes IT leaders must take a new approach to the sourcing of talent.
He says CIOs need to find a way to adjust how their businesses select staff, which is traditionally based on a CV that quotes the companies that candidates have worked for and the projects they have worked on. To foster engagement, Marks says the spirit of entrepreneurial people is sometimes more important than the products delivered.
"I can recall several incidents on BBC's 'Dragons' Den', where one of the Dragons invests but states clearly: 'It's not your product I want; it's the way you think'. I am hopeful that there are ways I can access people who have their own spirit and creativity, rather than having to buy a product."
So to build creativity, CIOs must recognise that the use of technology is completely dependent upon the context within which it is implemented. Technology can help create new opportunities for businesses, but it is people who will both spot these openings and be crucial to the success of an IT project.