Leadership optimize

Innovation: The CIO's secret weapon

The CIO is one of the few officers of the corporation with a robust knowledge of the processes and practices of nearly every facet of that corporation. Here's how to take advantage of that secret weapon.

Innovation is a hot topic in the IT industry. CIOs routinely deal with new technologies or find themselves on the leading edge of new ideas in disciplines from project management to HR. However, a goldmine of innovation exists in every IT department that is largely ignored by CIOs: IT's ubiquitous nature.

IT is ingrained in every facet of the modern corporation. From marketing to receivables, there is likely a system or process in place that was developed by, or maintained by, IT. While this deep integration with individual business units creates frequent laments about subjects like alignment and customer service, the CIO is one of the few officers of the corporation with a robust knowledge of the processes and practices of nearly every facet of a corporation. For example, this unique positioning might allow the CIO to see how data captured by Marketing might be highly valuable to a new production initiative, or how a new system or process in AR might be hampering the efforts of the sales force.

"Getting a seat at the table" and a place in the strategic planning process falls into place effortlessly when you can understand and articulate the impacts of strategy on the corporation as a whole, or identify accelerators that would not be apparent to those involved in a process at too detailed or too high a level. Innovation is the CIO's "secret weapon" that bridges the gap between other members of the C-suite focused on individual process areas, and the CEO, responsible for steering the company at the highest level. Acting to bridge the two moves the CIO from the periphery of the C-suite players into the inner sanctum. To accelerate the innovation process, and use the CIO's unique insights into the workings of the company to maximum benefit, you should:

Become a student of your company

Everyone in the C-suite should have a robust understanding of the company's markets, products, challenges and opportunities and the CIO is no exception. With this common understanding, you can orient your process and technical knowledge of the company and have a base knowledge that is shared with your peers. You can appreciate the CEO's strategic objectives and talk about them as a peer once armed with this knowledge, and couch more technical discussions in terms of the company's products and markets rather than dealing with blank, uninterested stares as you explain the latest and greatest technical wizardry.

Talk strategy, not "solutions"

We're obsessed with "solutions" in IT, from vendors pitching the latest black box that will magically generate a massive ROI, to enterprise software implementations that promise the world once you commit to a multi-year implementation. There are no magic bullets, and talk of "solutions" furthers the stereotype of the CIO as a naïve techie. Use your macro-level knowledge of the company described above and combine it with your detailed process knowledge to identify hidden value, and you're thinking and offering strategy. Identifying high-value data squirreled away in corporate data warehouses that can generate massive returns for little to no investment is strategic thinking, pitching the latest beige boxes is not. Just imagine what would have happened if a CIO of one of the embattled financial institutions had done some data mining into the real risk levels of mortgage-backed investments and provided some advance warning of the current financial crisis to his or her C-suite peers.

Embrace "The Business"

It's always amusing to hear IT folks talk about "the business" as if it were some mythical demon, at odds with, and a foe of, IT. IT is a business unit like any other, and should invest itself and collaborate with every other business unit to further the objectives of the company. Embracing the business does not mean you blindly follow orders and bow to every whim of your counterparts, rather you partner with them to help accelerate the execution of the company's objectives. The day where no one in your IT shop is referring to "the business" or "the customer" when talking about their peers outside IT is the day IT can take its place as a corporate innovation engine.

Find your Walkman

Sony revolutionized the music industry with the Walkman portable music player by developing a product nobody knew they needed. By looking at how people were using music, and the available technology, Sony created a revolutionary product that is the grandfather of today's digital music players. Rather than merely providing what people are clamoring for from IT, step back from the daily grind and look for answers to questions no one has yet been able to articulate. Responding to every request is nice, but fixing the problems no one knew they had is priceless.

Don't forget the cleanup crew

Building an innovative culture within IT is a noble and worthwhile effort, but success itself presents a risk. Innovators often leave a trail of destruction in their wake, leaping to the next challenge before the current task is complete, and abandoning new systems or processes before they are fully established. Fortunately, most IT shops are well-versed in a culture of providing care and feeding to newly established systems. Take care to extend these practices to new processes, and make sure your maintainers are not forgotten amidst the sound and fury of the innovators.

With an increased focus on innovation, IT starts articulating problems in business terms, and also offers solutions that consider the greater good of the corporation rather than the latest and greatest technology. An IT organization that succeeds in these five areas is truly a competitive weapon, and the CIO who presides over such an organization an invaluable asset.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology.  Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has...

27 comments
mark.giblin
mark.giblin

This is fine if your an "American" company. What about Europe and the rest of the world, each IT industry has its own goals, specialists and are structured differently. If EVERYONE followed these "Best Practices" to the letter, the world would be a very bland place. What most Americans forget is that theirs a world beyond their borders that is different and had just as much say in "Best Practices" than just one sole source aka the US. So when I get emails to my in box spouting what is nothing more than a way of allowing CTO CIO CEO ADH ADD MND OCD compliant muppets to pat themselves on the back for knowing something that is worthless to 99.999% of the world population, your going to get a wake up call on how myopic yanks are in the "World Scheme" of things and when it comes to faceless corporations that are nothing more than paper shuffling domains and not actual REAL "IT" people at all. "IT" is an industry that is constantly evolving and what your article is saying is that these individuals are an authority on the subject when the fact is clearly the opposite. So when is "TechRepublic" going to take up the challenge of providing "Best Practice" models that fit the rest of the world? Seems pretty one sided to me.

dawgit
dawgit

While ""Innovation" and "Solutions" might be hot topics in your board room. They are in fact now, just catch(y) words and "Hype". Totally valueless in themselves. They describe a way to overcome problems, a process, a way of thinking. They are not "Secret Weapons"; as you state, but ways to better use those "Weapons". To say that "We're (the IT field) obsessed with "solutions"" is like saying that other departments must be obsessed with problems. Everyone should be in the "Solutions" business when examining solutions to problems, or even potential problems. Many of things you have written of are more in line of that of the CTO, and not particularly of a CIO. On ..."...the CIO is one of the few officers of the corporation with a robust knowledge of the processes and practices of nearly every facet of a corporation.", wishfull thinking maybe, (it might be true for you, but I'm talking in general, as are you.) but highly doubtfull. Of course if the business is making Software, it would be different, but most businesses don't make Software, they make products, real (as in the physical "real") products. Which brings us back to reality. IT, as well as HR, Sales and Marketing are in fact, Overhead. Usefull yes, but if it's not directly in the Production and maybe Distrobution of a product, it's Overhead. Plain and simple. They used to teach that in Business Courses. The bottom line is the Product-Profit Ratio. Not what (sometimes costly) IT procedures are used. Knowing, (not learning) the company throughly should be everyones responcibilty. ("Become a student of your company") Not just the CIO. Everything you state in this section should be the mindset of every employee. Anyone who does not see it that way ("Embrace The Business") will be a deficite to the organization. That holds true for those in, or outside of the "C-Suite", the IT dept., or anywhere else for that matter. In "Rather than merely providing what people are clamoring for from IT, step back from the daily grind and look for answers to questions no one has yet been able to articulate. Responding to every request is nice, but fixing the problems no one knew they had is priceless.", again that should go for every dept., it's what makes company's sucussful. (The "Walkman" analogy doesn't really work here. IMHO) If a CIO really has the responsibilty to be "Building an innovative culture within IT...", there shouldn't be a need for "...the cleanup crew". One major topic I hadn't seen mentioned here is the Energy Crisis. And this has become the number one issue for almost all organizations. Those sucessful in this will not only reap the PR benifits, but also in saving revenues. And now it's a matter of financial survival to cut those costs. If ever there was an need for "Inovation" and "Solutions" it is now, and especialy in this area. The IT branch is more than equally involved in the effort, as we have become a major part of the consumption of engery, either directly, or indirectly. But again, this is not only limited to the CIO's chair, equally to the CTO, and of course ultimately the CEO. That "is a noble and worthwhile effort." IMHO -d

dawgit
dawgit

There was something about this article that bothered me. I couldn't quite pin-point it, but it was there, hence I joined Michael Kassner in asking for some Clarification. It is, in my opinion, a very well writen article, and the subject mater is certainly realitive, but it still had something that bothered me. After posting my comments here, (maybe not pertaintenant, but mine just the same) I still was wondering what it was that left me unsetled. Then I realized what it was. If I had read this article somewhere else, such as "CIO" or "Business Week" or some other periodicle more directed to the 'Business' side of the World, it would have made perfect sense. For some reason, while a very important subject mater here, it seemed out of wack to me. It's not that Patrick Gray is "Preaching to the Choir", but it is maybe that I've become too involved with the technical side of things, and assumed that the CIO's should have already known this. But any recent issue of a news paper has shown that that is not the case at all. Silly me. Again a good article, one that got me to thinking and wondering. Thanks. -d

techtalk
techtalk

Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. Henry Ford when asked what he thought of user input and putting together his first auto said: "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."

pgray
pgray

That is a great quote and very applicable to this article. I'm going to file it away in my collection of true gems. Thanks for sharing this.

mick.burian
mick.burian

What a wealth of information the Customer is! Many switched on companies are utilizing this free resource to supercharge their operation! Refer to latest initiatives by SAP, HP, Salesforce etc.

reisen55
reisen55

CIOs when presented with larger issues that they cannot get a handle on, use the simple method of outsourcing to India. It works great for them (they no longer have headaches and stress) and can depart instantly. At Aon Group, the CIO and CTO were facing multiple issues in 2004 so they outsourced everything to Computer Sciences Corporation. In August of 2004 the deal was done and within 24 hours the CIO left for Chubb Insurance after selling her stock and the CTO left for Coca Cola after selling his stock. CIOs do not have to bother with details. Outsource and make money, then run and repeat as required at your new job.

WKL
WKL

Saying that "IT can take its place as a corporate innovation engine" is like saying that the office copier can take its place as the company business plan. What the eff are you talking about? Isn't it enough that IT constantly provides technical solutions to the ever present, ever-ongoing technical problems? If not, why not?

dawgit
dawgit

If it does not involve the actual production and distrobution of a real product, it's Overhead, plain and simple. Sales and Marketing? Overhead. Maintence? Overhead. Technical Assistence (including IT)? Overhead. It's a direct product-profit ratio that makes the money, all the rest is only supportive, and yup, Overhead, just like office machines. -d

ibogorad
ibogorad

...you are commodity, just like that copier you are referring to, if you settle for a role of "tech guy". Once you are a commodity, the question becomes, can this be done for less money? And where it leads, you may guess. A couple of my articles on this topic are here on Techrepublic. This is an excellent piece by Patrick. Innovate, and you will be a crown jewel of the organization. Settle for a supplicant role of "technical support", and you are toast. Ilya Bogorad ibogorad@bizvortex.com

ryan.latham
ryan.latham

If the roles of IT are only problem solving and providing solutions, what real value are they adding beyond that function? Meaning if I don't ask the why behind a project presented to my team, I'm not doing my job as leader in my organization. The question why determines who benefits, by how much, and at what cost. As Ilya stated above, if you don't add value beyond task or project fulfillment, you'll eventually become another cog in the machine.

ryan.latham
ryan.latham

I never said IT doesn't add tremendous value, I simply pointed out that it shouldn't stop there. IT should be adding not only support value but strategic value too. I'm sorry you've worked in environments that have an us versus them mentality, but its not like that everywhere. I've been able to transform two different companies because I can speak to both the C-level people and the front line support technicians and understand both sides. People with my business and technology background will start to change the landscape but it?s going to take some time.

dawgit
dawgit

There might be a chair flying your way, courtisy of Steve Ballmer. :D You're totaly correct of course. -d

dawgit
dawgit

@ ibogorad: I'm wondering if we're on different Planets here. It's highly un-likely that in todays Corporate Structures, to find a CIO who was in the actual IT work force before moveing to the 'Big Office' as you said. Reality isn't what it used to be. -d @ WLK: I think in many cases the CIO are or were technologists at one point, but technocrates would be more fitting. Did they actually work as an techniction, or actual IT hands on job? Not likely. At least not much further than that of a basic familuarity of the processes. (and not many of them either.) -d

ibogorad
ibogorad

... that you see it that way, "them" against "us". The sad fact is that there are too many organizations where the CIO speaks and behaves like the last nerd, and is ignorant of the realities of the business. It is hard to see him or her included in the decision makers' club, there is no question about that. I don't envy people who report to such a person, of which you seem to be one. In its present state, your IT department is deemed to be an expense item, not an investment. I wish I could convince you that there are IT professionals and organizations that are free of such unfortunate branding and of victim mentality, that thrive and prosper, have a strong voice through their CIO who not only can speak the tech language but also understands the business. They are highly regarded in their organizations because they are not only there to keep the lights up, that's just given, but also come up with ideas and solutions that propel their organizations past the competition. Many of them started where you are today - not listened too, "MBA BS", "we are here to fix your PC". It makes me happy to see them kicking butt today - and realize that I had something to do with their success. All the best Ilya Bogorad ibogorad@bizvortex.com

WKL
WKL

"It's a Big Club. And YOU ain't in it!" One cannot serve two masters. The "CIO" may think that he's a member of the good ol' boy "C-suite" but if he is really a technologist, I would doubt it. If he's really a member of the Big C-club, he's not a technologist but merely a repurposed MBA-type BS-ing it up with his cohorts, making insane demands of the true technical adepts under him and blaming them for his failures.

reisen55
reisen55

IT should be fully integrated into business plans and methods. We hold enormous power really, and management just thinks that we browse the web and do nothing because everything is up and running just great. Why? (Late night work is unseen by employees and those days at work on the weekend too). Besides, we apply patches and keep the systems secure (Important) and backups secure, tested and running (Very Important) and know what works and does not work. I could put my clients out of business if I followed the advice of Steve Ballmer and gave them VISTA. I have tested software on it that my clients NEED TO USE and guess what? It does not work at all. I am therefore a vital part OF THEIR BUSINESS PERIOD. A small customer can see that. Large scale American management does not, hence the financial allure of India and those cheap salaries with no health care benefits. And then things start to break, and worms come in and email fails. But you're getting it all on cheaper salaries and saving money for those shareholders too................. Would you like an email survey?

mick.burian
mick.burian

Firstly, the previous reply posted by WKL who is an IT Manager is correct in saying that he should do what he is instructed to do by the board. This topic is all about the CIO. The CIO gives the board the last chance to ensure that a decision made by the board is the correct one.

WKL
WKL

Do away with your tech support team and you'll quickly find out what "value" we are adding, I would suspect. As far as asking "why", that's a direct affront to corporate management leadership. Which WILL be resented, I assure you. It is not our place to question The Authorities, or even to make suggestions as to how to run the business. And they will quickly remind you of that fact.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I really would appreciate some sort of resolution on this statement. "We?re obsessed with ?solutions? in IT'" I fail to see any problem with this type of attitude and would respectfully appreciate some clarification.

laura
laura

Being obsessed with solutions isn't such a bad thing, as long as you are solving the right problems. All too often, we (as techies, business stakeholders or otherwise) start debating solutions before we really understand the problem. The end result being new problems that need new solutions. I've posted a bit about this in my blog: Bridging the Gap between Business and IT. http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/10-ways-to-discover-what-the-problem-really-is/ Best, Laura

pgray
pgray

Hi Michael, By being "obsessed with solutions" I mean that IT sees every business problem as having a technical solution. The CIO hears "Well, sales are down 20%" and immediately says "We need a CRM package." Or the COO mentions that the supply chain could be optimized, and the CIO quips "ERP is the answer." CIOs should seek to articulate problems in their business and process terms, and use IT as an accelerator towards the solution, not as the "solution" itself. For example if the sales force is slipping, there might be a process tweak, or some piece of information that would help their job that is squirreled away in AR, and a massive CRM implementation really is not the answer.

dawgit
dawgit

Although that is the general perception of a typical CIO, those "Solutions" scenairos you write of quite often bring diaster to the company's involved. Sales are down 20%? Why? It's very seldom that a new CRM brings sales up. The Supply Chain is not optimal? Again Why? An ERP isn't going to truck in your materials any faster. One of the biggest concerns of anyone in the 'C-suite' is making money. Buying into the newer, bigger, better of anything that is not going to increase the product-profit ratio, is only shaking the money tree. Not a good idea. So I will have to say the article leads one to think that, but, your post above, says something quite different. That agree with. -d

dawgit
dawgit

but I think that is what had me confused a bit, I failed to see where you made the differences. I'll add another comment to my post below with that in mind as well. While some CIO's do do exactly what you have described (as the should not do) it demonistrats that we've (actual IT technologists) lost contact with the 'C-suite'. I think (and do many others) that most of the highly visible CIO's did not come from a technical background but a (MBA type) background. It shows now and it seems to be a cause of many problems and breakdowns in the coprerate world. IT technology is the way or means that can be used to make process changes. A Tool that can be used. The CIO should, of course, make sure that all tools available be available. (IT technology being one of those tools.) I don't know if that would particularly mean 'Getting Stuck'. It means to me doing a job, one that has a need to be done. I wouldn't want to limit that however, by percentages as such though. But I see what you meaning with that. -d

pgray
pgray

Dawgit, Thanks for your comment, and I think we're saying the same thing. By "selling solutions" I mean advocating CRM or ERP to solve a business problem, when that is exactly what the CIO should NOT be doing. People in IT get stuck seeing every business problems as having a technical "solution," and this is exactly what they need to avoid. Being innovative means seeing beyond the technology, and using IT as the "last 10%" to accelerate process changes.

axent
axent

I've taken this statement at face value. It means exactly what's it's trying to say: that people in IT are obsessed with fixing problems. Some of those people are so obsessed that they search for problems to fix, or fix problems that don't need to be fixed. IT is part of a solution-driven society where we provide answers to issues that arise. But are we forgetting to address issues that don't arise? I like to think that the students in my class provide solutions, but that their thought-processes are strategy-based. They don't approach a problem or project with the mentality of "What is the fastest way to fix it", they look at it as "What strategy do we need to employ to get all the information we can?" Then, from that information, apply a strategy to reach the solution.

jck
jck

IT is [b]expected[/b] to provide solutions, whether it is to an issue or to meet goals. And quite often (since people outside of IT are not usually in-the-know of IT operations or their technology), IT is often a "whipping boy". Of course if you are looking to fix problems...if a problem exists (and of course nothing else is requiring the attention more), isn't it better to fix the problem rather than to let it fester and possibly balloon or cascade into more serious issues? I think that's why IT people do what they do. We get beat for the silliest little thing by (quite often) non-technical management. Plus, we know that we are expected to perform almost unerringly (much like computers) and try to operate [b]and[/b] maintain things in top order.