Agents of change

Agents of change

A new breed of CIO is ripping up the rule book and delivering business outcomes in ways the old guard would certainly frown upon.

Sam Cooke's influential song, A Change is Gonna Come (circa 1963), echoed and foreshadowed the major societal shifts of the American civil rights movement. The engaging chorus scans: "It's been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will." This refrain may also herald a new order in IT that has been gathering force for more than a decade. Progressive CIOs are unseating their regressive counterparts and bringing new meaning to IT enablement.

Three factors have coalesced, affecting the IT organisation and its type of leader:

The global financial crisis forced organisations into being more creative and flexible.

A new generation of CEOs is emerging; they want the CIO in the room when strategy is formulated, and above all, they want IT to deliver organisational value.

Powerful exemplars of good IT strategy are in the public domain – Walmart and Dell in the supply chain arena; Harrah's casino rejuvenating its ­business through predictive analytics; and Procter & Gamble, Woolworths and Ford using social media to engage consumers in innovation.

The new CIO may not have commenced work as a technologist. They may have been attracted to IT by subject matter expertise in a business sector, problem-solving skills, strength in dealing with ambiguity or the drive and capacity to engage with stakeholders.

Previously, many non-technical information chiefs either failed to survive or morphed into technologists, defeating the objective of a CIO that talks business, not bytes. This time it's different. It's no longer essential for the CIO leader to talk the language of technology. It's relatively easy for IT to act as a broker and sourcing specialist, able to pull solutions together with the right products and expertise. The key is to have a deep, contextual understanding of business problems and to work these through to an acceptable solution.

Four defining characteristics denote the new CIO and their IT organisation.

1. Value alchemist

Mission statement: unlock organisational value using a task force of IT people that blend soft (e.g. relationships) with hard (e.g. BPR – business process re-engineering) skills. Attaining business intimacy and confidence is the first step. The IT scouting party may ­collocate with the business to get a grip on problems and opportunities – then, with full business visibility, craft creative business solutions encompassing technological, process, people and organisational elements. Too often this work is done by external specialists.

2. Lazer-driven

"Lazer", or latency zero is the ability to get things done with minimal delay. Despite good planning, organisations often face unplanned events, such as legislative change, that need immediate action. Using cloud service providers and other sourcing methods (for example, flexible staffing strategies), the new IT organisation can deliver a rapid, effective response. Well-managed, lazer-driven IT organisations should be able to accommodate unexpected business demands with little effect on the current IT delivery program.

3. Quasi-faire

Traditional IT organisations are controllers. They prescribe desktop and mobile standards, what enterprise software can be deployed, acceptable methodologies, and so on. A more modern approach, "quasi-faire" (from quasi and laissez-faire), implies that IT will contemplate, indeed tolerate, more freedom of choice and flexibility.

Quasi indicates that while new freedoms may seem to be in place, countermeasures exist behind the scenes. So staff use their own laptops and mobile devices but MDM (mobile data management) tools, for example, will protect corporate data.

Many CIOs object when users, through their own efforts, shortlist software with ­little, if any, IT involvement. In a quasi-faire environment such selections may be ­tolerated in the knowledge that a "good enough" solution suffices. But much depends on the business criticality of the application and its contribution towards core goals.

4. Machiavellian new-ager

Machiavellian new-ager implies blending outcome orientation with underlying sensitivity. Above all, effective CIOs are doers. They make things happen. They ensure projects are finished successfully. They cajole business executives into benefit realisation when technically this is not part of their job description.

In his book The Prince, Machiavelli opined that the end justifies the means. This is the type of focus needed by the new CIO, who may be able to temporarily shrug off the ­strictures of conventional IT process and even overlook interpersonal niceties to achieve an organisational outcome that will be remembered long after the machiavellian outbursts that spurred them.

Rob Mackinnon is an adviser with IBRS.  

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