Leadership

Running to stand still? Five tips to stop CIOs being left behind

IT and business change cracks along at speed, so CIOs have to know the best ways of coping with those rapid shifts - as well as handling management expectations.

For CIOs, the management of senior stakeholder expectations is crucial. Photo: Shutterstock

Modern business is all about speed - speed to innovation, to market and to growth. CIOs are expected to create the strategy that allows the business to move quickly, making best use of the digital technology than underpins organisational operations.

Working at such a pace can be challenging, especially as the rest of the business demands flexibility that might have been lacking in traditional enterprise-scale IT deployments.

So, how do CIOs cope with rapid change in IT and create the type of IT strategy that meets business expectations? Five experts offer five best-practice tips for dealing with the pace of change.

1. Hold grown-up conversations to help the business absorb IT change

"The pace of change is so fast that keeping up as a CIO is a real challenge," recognises Mark Bramwell, CIO at the charitable foundation Wellcome Trust. He says IT leaders face a daily challenge to identify what IT is best for both the individual and the organisation.

"How do we know, as an IT department, what are the best apps for the business?" he asks. "CIOs have to find the right balance and have grown-up conversations that explain to the business that nothing comes for free, even if that's what some people might think. Every piece of hardware or software that connects to the enterprise needs to be supported."

Bramwell has worked to prioritise the delivery of key business IT initiatives and his IT team helped to deliver 46 major projects in 2011. What's more, he says he has found that the business's capability to absorb such a high degree of successful change has been incredible.

"Projects don't stop on the day of IT implementation. CIOs have to keep ensuring that the business keeps getting more bang for its buck. IT can become a victim of its own success. It's totally appropriate for my customers to be demanding," he says.

2. Carefully manage stakeholder expectations

The pace of change, says Linda Herbert, is the biggest challenge facing CIOs. As IT director of The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, she works hard to help the business identify what needs to be done and what can be achieved in terms of resources.

"The management of senior stakeholder expectations is crucial," says Herbert. "Things can move so quickly that you miss that trick and a major part of the CIO role is still business-as-usual systems."

Herbert has prioritised board-level engagement, so that executives understand the types of projects that can be realistically supported via set of tightly governed processes. Initial assessments from business peers are matched to existing projects and in-house expertise.

Change management, then, is paramount. Herbert says new technologies and ways of working take time to embed, and she advises all CIOs to focus on satisfying executive demands through carefully thought-through engagement. "Upfront thinking helps slow things down in a sensible manner," she says.

3. Show how small transformations create big benefits

Trevor Hanna, CIO at Associated British Foods, recognises that once big projects have started they are tough to get right and even harder to modify. Like many of his IT leadership peers, he is looking for a way to create smaller IT projects that are easier to manage and which provide flexibility to cope with rapid changes.

"We don't invest in a static world and time moves on," he says. "Business is all about perpetual change and a need to find new growth opportunities. Executives want to see big shifts but complex IT projects are often difficult to break down into smaller components."

IT costs, however significant they might seem, remain a small proportion of a larger organisation's overall budget. And as technology projects alone do not drive top-line growth or profit- margin increases, CIOs must find ways to demonstrate how small transformations create big benefits for the business.

"We try to run smaller projects because of the amount of change required in large-scale implementations," says Hanna. "Our business is almost like a collection of smaller firms, with their own individual business aims and systems. As the IT department, we provide a layer of governance on top."

4. Roll with the changes and head to the cloud

Gurprit Singh, CTO at HP, says the fast pace of change and an associated range of business expectations means the IT department is quickly developing a new role as the broker of services. IT leaders, he says, must take the opportunity to engender transformation.

"You've got to keep the lights running but you also need to inspire the art of the possible. Major changes are taking place in IT," says Singh, who pays particular attention to the confluence of major trends - such as consumerisation and cloud - which are causing the demands for application development to outpace the capacity of the traditional IT infrastructure.

"Expectations are changing and people want devices that make it easier to cope with new demands. That kind of ease of use is really fuelling business expectations and that puts extra pressure on CIOs," he says.

"Organisations looking to cope with the demands of agility are looking to the cloud for testing and development. That's purely an issue of speed and an ability to create apps in a matter of weeks, rather than months."

5. Take on risk if you want high-performing IT

Denis McCauley, director of global technology research at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), recognises business IT moves much faster now. He suggests large-scale enterprise projects that used to take two years now take as little as three months to roll out.

And that pace of change creates real pressure for CIOs looking for broader recognition from across the business. "You're only as good as your last project," says McCauley. "The real weight of expectation for CIOs is in delivering innovation. It's about understanding where companies expect the impetus for innovation to come from."

"People used to be scared of consumerisation," he says. "That fear has receded but now CIOs need to think in terms of risk. They need to ask about the potential benefits of new technology, rather than the possible threat."

About

Mark Samuels is a business journalist and editor at IT leadership organisation CIO Connect. He has written for various organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Guardian Government Computing and Times Higher Education.

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