This article is part of our June series about the future of work. Click here for more.
Unleashing innovation in today’s business environment requires a deep and broad knowledge of IT. However, understanding how to pull all the levers and push all the buttons to create actual business value requires more the ability to leverage leading-edge digital technology.
It’s ultimately about how an organization—and the modern-day CIO—balances people, processes, and technology.
“A CIO needs to understand the current business realities ... and have a view of the future,” said Abhijit Mazumder, CIO at business and IT consulting firm TCS.
CMO.com spoke to four elite CIOs about how they’re navigating the current business and IT environment—and elevating their own performance to a new level. Their insight revolved around five main areas of focus.
1. They Understand Disruption
It’s one thing to acknowledge that today’s business and IT environments are disruptive. It’s entirely another to fully understand the concept and act on it effectively.
“The traditional CIO role—managing information, IT systems, and cost—has morphed into one of creating new competitive advantage, new products, and new services,” said Archie Deskus, CIO and senior vice president at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). “To be successful, today’s CIO must embrace, instill, and protect a culture of innovation and disruption across the enterprise.”
At the center of the evolution? Automation and smarter systems, in which the role of technology is to make people more productive and agile,” TCS’s Mazumder added.
2. They Focus On Business Outcomes
The goal of IT isn’t merely to speed operations and introduce new and shinier ways to do things; it’s also to produce qualitative improvements. When an organization generates greater value for customers, everyone wins. For example, at Alaska Airlines, which operates 1,200 daily flights and accommodates 44 million passengers, the focus is on delivering a consistent experience to passengers, employees, and others.
Every technology, process, and service touches this concept, which boosts the odds that the airline delivers a “unique brand experience at every touch point, digital and otherwise,” explained Charu Jain, the airline’s vice president and CIO. She constantly works to align the business plan with the technology, she said.
Jain accomplishes this by focusing on a few key areas: identifying strategy and priorities; establishing clearly defined metrics; tapping analytics for constant feedback; ensuring that groups and teams are in lockstep with one another; and taking calculated risks, failing fast, and moving forward.
Her goal, she said, is to encourage ownership and accountability across the organization. She reinforces progress by “celebrating the small wins accomplished through an innovative spirit.”
3. They’re Collaborative
Because IT touches every corner of the modern enterprise, it’s critical to ensure that technology solutions completely align with strategies but also fit the needs of individual departments and groups.
The only way to achieve this level of alignment is through a collaborative approach.
“You have to know your internal stakeholders and understand their business plans and goals for the near term and long term,” said Cynthia Stoddard, senior vice president and CIO at Adobe (CMO.com’s parent company). “The ability to communicate and collaborate—and connect all the silos through technology and processes—determines organizational success.”
Stoddard said she makes it a point to step out of the office and interact with others.
“You have to talk to people from other departments about what works and what doesn’t work,” she said. “You have to understand the current customer experience and what could make things better.”
In fact, Stoddard said she spends time “listening in” on customer support calls to learn about pain points and ensure that she is in sync with the needs of the business as well as other business leaders.
4. They Embrace A Culture Of Risk
One of the biggest challenges associated with today’s business and IT environment is staying current with the dizzying array of technologies—particularly emerging tech. Robots, drones, autonomous vehicles, speech recognition, machine learning, augmented and virtual realities, the internet of things (IoT), and more can determine whether an enterprise soars or stumbles.
“A CIO must understand potential opportunities, including how to combine technologies to produce exponential and disruptive gains,” Stoddard said.
“People need to experiment and fail because a great deal of knowledge comes out of the failure,” Stoddard pointed out. Sometimes, exploration and a meandering path to progress leads to unexpected and serendipitous gains—as well as disruption. “When you have people thinking out of the box, good things happen,” she said.
At best, a CIO can turbocharge results by “fueling ‘the art of the possible’ discussions and outcomes by bringing a unique mix of technology and business understanding,” HPE’s Deskus explained. “It’s not just about thinking outside the box. Especially for traditional companies, it’s important to look at how one incubates disruptive innovations.”
This may also involve open innovation frameworks and building centers of expertise. Deskus’ suggestion: “Work like a startup. Enable the freedom to imagine and innovate.”
5. They Are Willing To Rethink Everything
One common problem for CIOs is becoming overinvested in ideas, concepts, and IT platforms. Stoddard said she believes that it’s necessary to “embrace critical thinking and challenge one’s own knowledge and assumptions.”
This requires a strong ego and a non-defensive mindset. For example, Stoddard promotes an open environment where people aren’t afraid to question the status quo and present new and sometimes radically different ideas. She also focuses on building diverse teams to address technology issues.
“This ensures that people will be exposed to ideas they would have otherwise never thought about,” she said.
She encourages her team members to participate in a hands-on “Adobe Experience Day” where employees are able to test-drive company products and become more knowledgeable and connected to them. She also has explored ways to better focus technology innovation. For instance, in 2017 she re-organized her leadership team to be capability and product focused and established an employee experience guru to oversee all employee-facing tech functions, including tech collaboration tools, telephony, and video. She described this strategy as “advancing the inside.”
Achieving greatness as a CIO is ultimately grounded in a simple but profound concept: It’s critical for CIOs to fundamentally rethink their roles—and the roles of all others around them, Mazumder said.
“The new-age CIO therefore needs to be a business leader—someone who orchestrates rather than assembles,” he added. “For maximum success, a CIO requires a forward vision, a great team that’s focused on agility, and continuous engagement and alignment with all stakeholders. This allows the organization to pivot at the right moment.”