Four steps to help CIOs drive innovation and strategy

innovation and strategy signTechnology is fundamental to the digital business. It underpins and enables new business models, products and services. As the organisation’s technology leader, the CIO can play a key role in shaping and leading the digital transformation of their business. Certainly this is what their C-suite colleagues think; in a recent survey of 420 global business leaders commissioned by Red Hat and performed by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services 57% of executives said that their CIO should be driving innovation and strategy. Unfortunately for CIOs, only 12% of respondents said that their CIO actually provides that drive.

It is not a lack of desire or interest on the part of the CIOs that is stopping them being strategic. A survey performed by Logicalis found that 73% of CIOs want to spend at least half of their time on strategic activities. But the same survey also found that 53% of CIOs currently spend 70% or more of their time on day-to-day management of technology, while 80% spend at least half of their time on low value, non-strategic activity. No wonder then that many CIOs are finding it hard to operate at the strategic level of their organisation when such a high proportion of their time is spent on running its existing infrastructure and applications.

This gap between the C-suite’s expectations of their technology leader and the actual contribution of the CIO is undoubtedly one of the reasons why some CIOs find themselves being bypassed or sidelined in favour or other executives who do have the time to spend time thinking about how technology can be used to create value and grow revenue.

In my last article, It’s not just CIOs that need a new model for IT, I talked about the need for CIOs to reinvent the IT function and their own roles to address this problem. And in my new book, Disrupt IT, I define a radical new model for IT that meets this need and I also provide a framework of seven principles that will guide CIOs and the rest of the C-suite through the transformation process.

The type of radical change required to reposition the CIO role and the IT function is a significant undertaking. It will require the dismantling of much of the IT function’s existing structures, processes and teams, and the development of new competencies, skills and knowledge. Such a transformation takes time and requires the understanding and support of the rest of the C-suite.

In the meantime, the digital business keeps moving on; it cannot wait for the CIO and the IT function to catch-up. So what immediate steps can the CIO take to avoid being bypassed by the rest of the business? CIOs need to extract themselves from the day-to-day running of the existing infrastructure and systems and they also need to ensure they are involved in any digital discussions and initiatives in their company. To do this I recommend the following four steps that will help CIOs reduce the time they spend managing day-to-day issues, increase their influence on innovation and strategy and position themselves as their organisation’s digital leader:

  1. Delegate and trust: CIOs need to handover the day-to-day running of the IT function to their management team. They need to remove any operational dependencies on them by handing over the necessary knowledge, responsibility and authority to their direct reports. To get started CIOs should look at their diaries and challenge whether they really need to attend every meeting. Anything that is related to keeping the lights on and which can be covered by the management team should be removed. They should then do the same with the reports they are sent, the approvals they are asked to give, etc. Of course this is only possible if the CIO has already built a strong management team. If they do not have such a team then they have a bigger and potentially longer-term problem that needs to be addressed before they can think about broadening their horizons.
  2. Build your network: develop your relationships with your stakeholders and the organisation’s key influencers. If necessary block out some of the time in your diary you have just freed up for networking. To influence anyone you need to have a good working relationship, respect and credibility. This takes time to develop and requires continual effort to maintain. Ask to attend your peers’ management meetings and, where appropriate, accompany them to meetings with customers and partners. CIOs cannot drive innovation and strategy if they do not regularly spend time with the key players in their organisation; you need to be in the room when opportunities to use technology to create value or enable a new product or service are being discussed.
  3. Get up to speed with digital: if CIOs are going to lead the digital transformation of their organisations they need to become their organisation’s digital expert. Case studies, events, analyst reports and blogs are all sources of information about digital. Networking may get you regular airtime with your stakeholders and key influencers but you need to use this time wisely. They have to feel like every interaction with the CIO has provided them with value. Becoming an authority on digital will ensure you do add value to every conversation and will lead to you being the first person on the invite list for any discussions about using technology to innovate or create value.
  4. Embrace shadow IT: CIOs should view shadow IT initiatives as opportunities to learn about the organisation and what it really needs from technology. Shadow IT projects are typically in customer facing areas or directly related to driving revenue or improving profit – exactly the areas where the innovative and strategic CIO should be operating. So instead of fighting shadow IT initiatives, CIOs should offer advice and where possible, resources to help them succeed. It is better to be part of a successful shadow IT project than it is to watch it succeed against your advice or wishes. And, with estimates of technology spending by the rest of the business ranging from 20%-40%, it is also an opportunity for CIOs to influence what is becoming a significant proportion of the total IT spend.

By following these four steps CIOs will be able to increase the amount of time they can spend on more strategic issues and have more influence over the digital direction of the business. They will also have started to reposition their own roles as the organisation’s digital leader, and they will be buying themselves the time they need to transform the IT function and their own roles to meet the long-term needs of the digital business.

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