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CIO Upfront: Breakthrough or middle ground?

CIO Upfront: Breakthrough or middle ground?

The CIO has the opportunity to be the most significant change agent within the senior leadership team, so what is stopping them? Rohan Light of Decisv writes about the challenges CIOs face in the digital economy.


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This problem is most visible in the communication and collaboration domain, hence Riggs’ study. His perspective is further developed in a paper (Re-platform the Knowledge Worker or They Will Do It Themselves) by Richard Edwards, Principal Research Analyst Enterprise Productivity and Mobility for Ovum:

“The power and capabilities of new end-user computing devices, the applications they run, and the services they connect to continue to increase the digital transformation potential of business information and communication technologies. As these technologies transition into the mainstream, CIOs and IT departments are engaging with their business colleagues to rethink the notion of the digital workspace, and with it the physical workplace too.”

In other words, consumerisation and business-led IT is changing the fundamental identity of the organisation from the inside. This goes to the heart of the problem for senior leaders navigating change. A business will appear to be a certain type on the outside but on the inside it is becoming something else again.

At face value this might appear to be a simple case of business evolution. It is a good thing that organisations move with the times and with the changing nature of the workforce. The serious issue at hand has become one of basic organisational health and hygiene. As we discovered in the medieval period, cities bring both opportunities and problems and the modern organisation can be analysed as if it were a city.

Edwards agrees with Riggs when he writes:

“The liberalization of corporate IT, whereby employees are able to use any sanctioned device to access corporate applications and data, might have produced beneficial changes in employee engagement and productivity, but it has also refocused attention on information security management and associated governance, risk, and compliance issues”

In the modern era, governance, risk and compliance (GRC) are critical challenges that require a considered response. It is a bitter reality for the CIO that when technology fails, business users are quick to complain. When confronted with problems integrating consumer grade technology into the managed IT stack, it is little wonder that the conventional response is to ban unsanctioned applications. While it is a rational response, it does little to address the problem.

A business will appear to be a certain type on the outside but on the inside it is becoming something else again.

Rohan Light, Decisv

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CIO’s cannot address the situation with a simplistic policy. After all, this technology is part of what digital transformation is actually about. For Edwards, the general approach to this challenge is clear:

“Enterprises should assess the extent to which consumer-oriented communication and collaboration tools are being used across the business, and then find ways to flip these into the managed IT environment.”

This is the functional challenge for the CIO. There will be a tendency, as always when navigating digital transformation, to take a middle approach. In decision terms, an approach of half measures demonstrates an unwillingness to fully grasp the nettle. This is not something confined to business leaders, it’s a tendency that’s hardwired into most of us.

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It takes significant courage to commit yourself wholeheartedly to an uncertain future. This, by the way, is why we have senior leadership teams in the first place. Organisations are decision-making machines that pass increasingly hard problems up the chain. These decisions tend to get re-framed as risk, which stimulates both our prevalence to risk aversion and our tendency to gamble when things look bad. The prevalence of "worse than useless" (L.A Cox, What’s Wrong With Risk Matrices?, Risk Analysis 28(2), 2008) soft-scoring risk management methods indicates how much we dislike uncertainty (and how little we understand modern probabilistic methods of risk management).

Taking a middle ground approach to the challenge of consumerisation may do little in terms of dealing with the problem. Steven Sinofsky wrote about this on LinkedIn (‘Continuous Productivity' and the Next Generation of Work and Tools For Work):

“Businesses that believe people will gradually move from yesterday’s modalities of work to these new ways will be surprised to learn that people are already working in these new ways. Technologists seeking solutions that ‘combine the best of both worlds’ or ‘technology bridge’ solutions will only find themselves comfortably dipping their toe in the water further solidifying an old approach while competitors race past them. The nature of disruptive technologies is the relentless all or nothing that they impose as they charge forward.”

Busy CIOs managing the shift of managed IT assets to opex, the troubled evolution of the modern IT support professional and the impact of consumerisation are haunted by the imperatives of making such all or nothing decisions. It’s tough going, and Sinofsky agrees with Riggs on a primary cause:

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“The list of devices and services routinely used by workers at every level is endless. The reality appears to be that for many employees the number of hours of usage in front of approved enterprise apps on managed enterprise devices is on the decline”

The installed base of managed IT applications aren’t meeting the needs of modern professionals. These professionals are working in a variety of environments and using a variety of platforms. Trying to keep up with the change, let alone model it, is becoming a losing battle for the CIO. Remember that this change in working habits is contributing directly to GRC issues at the enterprise level and there can be extremely serious consequences to getting this badly wrong.

This is why the response from CIO’s needs to be behavioural, rather than technological or by cluttering desks with endless risk registers. It’s about people, not technology platforms. And it's this word ‘platform' that helps identify what is happening in systemic terms. In the modern organisation a platform means much more than a technology asset. John Hagel writes about this on his blog (Platforms Are Not Created Equal: Harnessing the Full Power of Platforms) following his attendance of an MIT Media Labs Platform Strategy Summit:

“… platforms… cover a broad range of institutional arrangements. It was clear that they didn't simply view platforms as technology platforms. In fact, the definition they offer of business platforms is: “a nexus of rules and infrastructure that facilitate interactions among network users” or, alternatively, “a published standard, together with a governance model, that facilitates third party participation"”

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Hagel goes on to introduce several different types of platform: the one most relevant to the issue of the obsolete managed IT technology stack is the ‘mobilisation’ platform.

“Mobilisation platforms ultimately focus on mobilising participants to engage in some kind of collaborative effort that will take considerable time to accomplish… they are ultimately focused on moving people to act together to accomplish something beyond the capabilities of any individual participant”

This reframes the CIO challenge from a tool and asset based problem to a human and social one. Organisations are a collection of mobilisation platforms that shape people’s energy to achieve things individuals cannot.

What is occurring in the domain of enterprise IT is that people are bringing new mobilisation platforms into operation. This is rational on their part: they are seeking to enact the purpose of the organisation. It is positive value seeking behaviour and exactly the sort of thing senior leaders want to see.

This behaviour doesn’t go unnoticed by progressive leaders seeking to get ahead of the all-or-nothing challenge, as Edwards notes:

“The power and capabilities of new end-user computing devices, the applications they run, and the services they connect to continue to increase the digital transformation potential of business information and communication technologies. As these technologies transition into the mainstream, CIOs and IT departments are engaging with their business colleagues to rethink the notion of the digital workspace, and with it the physical workplace too.”

This opportunity to increase the digital transformation potential is why the CIO has the opportunity to be the most significant change agent within the senior leadership team.

As people within the organisation are changing the nature of the workplace by changing the mobilisation platforms, the CIO works to bring these new platforms into the managed IT stack. Some will remain on the penumbra for a while and others may never make it in: not all applications last the distance, which is why we are seeing Facebook develop business applications and not Myspace.

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The inability of some mobilisation platforms to earn a place in the managed IT stack is not just because one business group likes it while others don’t. It’s about whether the platform managed to qualitatively transform itself into a special type of platform, as Hagel points out:

“Those platforms that don’t help participants to learn faster and faster as they work together will tend to be marginalized over time, especially once learning platforms become more prevalent”

The idea of the learning organisation has been around for a long time and they are much less common that we’d like to believe. One of the reasons for their relative absence is the behaviour of technologists defending the integrity of the managed IT stack.

If consumer-grade and business-led IT mobilisation platforms entering the enterprise don’t obtain formal approval by corporate IT they become ‘shadow-IT’ and this segregation robs the enterprise of the learning opportunities these platforms offer. It also helps explain why the formal applications of the managed IT stack are being used less: they don’t help people learn.

It’s at this point that information management professionals will point to various enterprise knowledge management applications in the market as the solution for the CIO’s woe. These applications help, but they don’t do the full job. Again, Hagel identifies why:

“Knowledge transfer is inherently a diminishing returns game – the more the knowledge spreads across participants, the more the rate of learning will slow down. The only thing that can turn this from a diminishing returns game to an increasing returns game is to shift the focus from knowledge transfer to knowledge creation.”

This goes to the heart of the challenge facing all senior leaders: how can they get more of their people creating more value? In the information era we are data rich but knowledge poor. This is more than a case of the failing model of functional organisation and that misrepresented bugbear, ‘hierarchy’.

This is about recognising that the modern professional is creative, value seeking and is taking responsibility by finding mobilisation platforms appropriate to the demands of the modern workplace. The breakthrough opportunity is finding those platforms which can evolve into learning platforms. The strategic issue is whether CIOs take the defensive stance of the managed IT technologist and make insufficient effort to bring these new platforms into the fold.

Because that is how the digital transformation potential is constricted, enterprise learning slows, knowledge creation is stunted and the organisation fails to evolve. And we’ve seen enough of this already.

Trying to keep up with the change, let alone model it, is becoming a losing battle for the CIO - Rohan Light, Decisv
Trying to keep up with the change, let alone model it, is becoming a losing battle for the CIO - Rohan Light, Decisv


Rohan Light worked at the enterprise level in Inland Revenue in a series of specialised roles in the risk, design, portfolio management and business group domains. He began to be consulted by business people on issues of strategy, management and execution, which led to the formation of Decisv. His formal strategy work led to teaching strategic thinking as an Associate at VUW’s Professional and Executive Development.

He cofounded the Enterprise Analytics Forum, a community of practice that meets to discuss issues relating to the fundamental challenges analytics poses to pre-digital business models. He extended his involvement in the analytics sector when he was appointed Chairman of the SAS Users of New Zealand. His purpose here is to help build a world class analytics capability for New Zealand.


Send contributions to CIO Upfront to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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