Scaling Digital Transformation with Speed

By: Stephanie Porfiris, October 14 2020

For this IBM Spotlight, we spoke with leading experts about the evolving role of the CIO.

Once upon a time, a technology expert was broadly considered an internal support role — the realm of implementers and problem solvers. Unwelcome change crept in from outside an enterprise’s walls and required an answer, and Chief Information Officers (CIOs) dutifully crafted solutions.

Times have changed.

As technology continues to wind itself into our day to day, both as consumers and employees, digital strategy has become infinitely more than an initiative or an answer. It has evolved to be a key component of corporate strategy and, in thriving organizations, it is on equal footing with the overall business objectives.

To learn more about this shift, Elevate partnered with IBM in its second roundtable (check out the first one here) to bring together leading experts on the evolving role of the CIO.

Hosted by Charlene Li, author of The Disruption Mindset and Senior Fellow at Altimeter (A Prophet Company) and Patrick Antoine, VP & Partner, Enterprise Strategy & IX Leader, IBM Canada, the group explored how CIOs can embrace disruption, why their voice is more important than ever, and how to leverage it to create meaningful innovation.

#1: Keep business objectives top of mind

It’s no longer enough for CIOs to secure a seat at the strategy table. According to our hosts, they need one right next to the CEO.

By keeping their eyes on the overarching business strategy, through the lens of technology, CIOs are in a unique position to help cross-functional teams establish the right approach and infrastructure to make them successful, and maintain business continuity.

Even when approached with a request for a ‘quick fix’, our participants shared the view that delivering tactics is no longer enough. Instead, it’s up to CIOs to focus on the “why” when presented with an ask.

“Start at the root of the business problem. [Teams] will come to us and say ‘we need you to build a chatbot’…and we need to say, ‘we understand what your solution is, but let’s focus on the problem at hand and consider this one of the many solutions’.”

Amit Bhatia, Head of Manulife & John Hancock Innovation Labs

Charlene and Patrick agree, the more a CIO is able to stay focused on overall business outcomes, rather than limiting their gaze to tactics or technology, the more distinguished their performance will be.

So, where to start? Patrick recommends keeping these questions at the centre of all strategy conversations:

  1. What are the growth dynamics? 
  2. What insights do I need to derive? 
  3. What’s the posture of the balance sheet that I can help influence? 
  4. How do I build a culture of innovation? 

#2: Communicate Constantly. CONSTANTLY.

You may have secured your seat next to the CEO, but the things that happen once you stand up from the table are equally as important, according to Charlene.

“CIOs, in particular, need to do something today that they’re not naturally inclined to do — be upfront,” she says. “They need to be constantly communicating.”

In many organizations, the higher someone climbs, the less the team hears from them. In disruptive organizations, says Charlene, the opposite is true. 

“Leaders must see communication as an abundance rather than a scarcity,” she says. “We need to hear more. Where are we going? How are we doing? Are we going to be okay? Wherever people can be inspired is where you need to be.”

While you may have a team that can help with the medium (i.e., crafting an email or intranet post), the core of the message must come, authentically, from the leader. 

#3: Create change by creating consistency. 

Charlene has conducted extensive research on some of the companies known for successfully embracing change (from Google to ING Bank) and found that all of the disruptors she looked at share these three qualities.

  1. A focus on the future
  2. Having leaders that create movement
  3. A culture centred on openness, agency, and a bias for action

Woven through all three of these elements is a fundamental theme: structure. It may seem counterintuitive (given that phrases like ‘flexibility’ and ‘agility’ pepper the innovation ecosystem) but the key to all of these companies is stability.

“If you’re working on really uncertain work, you need to create certainty and stability, so that people feel safe so they can do that. They are locked down, very well run organizations with very clean processes. That’s how they’re able to be disruptive.” 

Charlene Li

If you want to innovate, you need to create a solid bedrock on which to build that disruption. Otherwise, fear, anxiety and uncertainty will hinder all of your efforts.

#4: Embrace the ‘Cognitive Enterprise’

According to Patrick, the classic approach to customer experience focused on fending off disruption and concentrating on the customer is an “outside-in approach”. 

For Patrick, the approach should be inside-out, which he calls a cognitive enterprise. 

Take a look at his explanation.

Patrick notes that 85% of clients are working on multiple clouds themselves (more than five on average), which is a level of complexity that demands — and deserves — orchestration. That requires an entirely new model to enable enterprises to (1) leverage the value of their applications, (2) keep them secure, and (3) improve workload performance and availability, all while modernizing their applications using cloud-native technology.

With all of those demands on the table, it’s no surprise that CIOs need support to make it happen, making the next rule of thumb absolutely essential.

#5: Build a Robust Ecosystem

With the mounting pressure on CIOs, it’s more important than ever to have a healthy support system, because no matter how adept a team is, there’s no chance they’ll be able to do everything in house — at least, not properly.

“Make ecosystem-building a first-quarter aspect,” says Charlene. 

Developing a network of third-party providers and partners can no longer be an after-thought, or something that can be done half-heartedly at conferences throughout the year; it should be a crucial part of business planning. 

“Ecosystems and partnerships are the big things,” agrees Patrick. “Figure out where you’re strong and where you want to build your core competency and, based on that, figure out third party providers; startups; universities. Find a cocktail of providers so you can deliver the best to your end-user.”

#6: Get culture right

“The disruption mindset has to permeate the entire organization so that when your customer moves, or when the environment shifts (as it has over the past few months), everyone shifts together,” explains Charlene. 

In order for this to happen, the culture has to be in place to support that type of alignment.

“It’s about the strategy, sure, but if you don’t have that culture to be able to do this and culture…then you’re not going to be able to keep up with it.”

Despite all the isolation happening during social distancing, people are more engaged with work than ever. According to Gallup’s most recent engagement index, people have been sitting at approximately 32% for years, and these past few months, it’s increased to 40%.

Take a look at why Charlene thinks that may be.

“It’s because we, as leaders, can peer into people’s lives,” explains Charlene. “We’re taking the time to develop that relationship, to care, to have empathy. As long as we as people are bringing our full selves and feeling more included and belonging, but only if our leaders are making an effort to make that happen.”

#7: Steer Clear of ‘Innovation Theatre’

Innovation is sexy, and it’s easy to be seduced by leading KPIs. New technology, processes, or initiatives may hold initial excitement, but the spark is sure to fizzle if they don’t lead to tangible results and high adoption. With pressing issues to attend to, enterprises can’t afford to offer two-dimensional solutions.

“The problems we are working on solving now have become fundamental, not just for our data and operations, but also for our future”.

Cari Covent, Vice President, Artificial Intelligence & Intelligent Automation, Canadian Tire

For this reason, Charlene thinks it’s vital to bring disruption right into the core of the business. 

“Bring truth, admit it will be hard, and put in place the structure, people, and partnerships that are going to get us through this,” she says. 

If you don’t, you may be at risk of falling into the “Innovation Theatre” trap. Here’s a look at what that means.

#8: Work with the Skeptics

All organizations have skeptics or risk-averse team members. The key to working with them effectively, according to Charlene, is to define precisely which type of risk is acceptable. 

The goal is to “get to a place where [leaders] are willing to take 5-10% off what they’re willing to feel comfortable with,” says Charlene. “You have to define the sandbox. Define the edge, and anywhere inside of it, you can play.”

Charlene points out that what most companies found with COVID is that the sandbox is giant. Companies braced for the work-from-home switch, expecting a cybersecurity risk and lack of productivity, but organizations dealt with it in a week and were pleasantly surprised with the results.

“Successful organizations make that boundary clear and have a tremendous amount of openness,” says Charlene. “That creates transparency, trust, and accountability. When you have that environment, people can take agency; they can take risks knowing the organization will be okay. We can fail, make mistakes, be vulnerable because we’re going to be okay.” 

But what to do about people who are too risk-averse even to define the sandbox? Charlene and our participants believe that if you must agree on a ‘north star’ outside of the organization.

The best start to choose? The customer.

“As the generation changes and as the customer changes, I find that my executives are more open to innovation when the customer demands it. Innovation, in a lot of ways, is driven by my customers.”

Anju Virmani, Chief Information Officer, Cargojet Airways

“The only way I’ve ever seen people bring them around is to focus on the customer,” agrees Charlene. “That’s a truth that you have to agree on. You’ll never win their hearts if you only go after their minds. You have to get them to fall in love with that customer and what they need.”

Final Thoughts

Today, successful CIOs must split their attention between legacy environments and continuity on the one hand, and transformation, innovation, and agility on the other.

It’s a tall order.

From driving business objectives and building culture, to advocating for structure and communicating vision, CIOs are being asked to fill an entirely new type of leadership role. In order to do so effectively, one thing is clear: CIOs are about to get loud.

Make some room — it’s time for these leaders to take centre stage.

Watch the full recording

Additional Resources

THINK Summit Canada

COVID-19 and the future of business

The Cognitive Enterprise

Capturing the True Value of Cloud and AI for Your Business