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TRANSFORM.FYI: The CIO is Dead, Long Live the CEO

Sally Edgar


Business Technology Transformation

As digital technology becomes ever more fundamental to every business, is it still acceptable for the CEO to not understand ‘tech’?  In DIGIT’s first TRANSFORM.FYI column, Sally Edgar, senior transformation consultant at Waterstons discusses why business people and technologists need to start talking the same language.

Sally Edgar, Senior Transformation Consultant, WaterstonsA research article about IT Strategy in a Computing Magazine sparked some interesting internal debate here at Waterstons. Should an IT Strategy even exist nowadays? The conclusion we reached was that only one strategy is really needed in business – the business strategy. The use of IT and Digital nowadays are so integral to business success that their use is understood, debated and planned at board level.

Or Is It?

When I originally thought about writing this blog, it was to examine the role of the CIO / CTO and test it to see if it’s now out of date. I thought that Chief Digital Officer (CDO) would be the natural successor, especially considering that IT is a different ballgame now. Digital has forced businesses to look at their technology investment through a different lens – the customers’. But that customer centric view of the world isn’t new thinking. In fact, I’ve been saying exactly the same things (over and over again) for over 15 years “If you don’t view your tech through the eyes of the end user it will likely fail”. So whilst CDO might still be a relatively new and fashionable job title, it is setting the role of IT and Digital apart from the business strategy and into its own silo, albeit engaged at Board Level.

However, if the business strategy did evolve to include the use of technology systems and digital channels, then surely the role of the CIO would also be subsumed into the business. Let’s face it, technology, and its vital purpose in most businesses in enabling greater efficiency and effectiveness, has been around a long time. Even the internet is over 20 years old! Surely it should be understood well enough by now to be strategically led by the CEO or COO? It should be as natural to today’s business leaders as checking the P&L.

But it’s not. And although most business leaders know they can’t run their business without it, they would still rather leave the difficult techie stuff to someone they can trust, like the CIO, and just get on with running “the business”. So the CIO duly writes an IT or Transformation strategy setting out a plan for their department in supporting the business outcomes and bingo, there are two strategies with the same outcome.

Why Does This Happen?

Why don’t CEOs embrace their inner CIO as an essential element of their business strategy? I’ve been pondering this question for weeks on and off, and the conclusion I’ve drawn so far is that, as is often the case, it’s our primeval senses that always kick in when we are caught unawares, and in this instance, it’s all down to a fear of the unknown.

I have observed many times that highly astute business people can be strangely intimidated by technology and by IT professionals. The fact that the CEO is an expert in their field, a highly respected business executive, accomplished in many different areas seems to become irrelevant when faced with IT decisions. That is crazy, not having a degree in computer science should not hinder him or her from understanding, in reasonable detail, the role of technology in their business, but weirdly it often does.

“Oh sorry I don’t understand I.T., I’m a complete Luddite I’m afraid.” People have said that to me quite freely, as if that is something they are not concerned about it in the slightest. Would they say to the CFO “I’m sorry I don’t understand those figures, I was hopeless at maths at school”? I bet they don’t, because not being able to add up just isn’t acceptable in business. But somehow it’s acceptable to not try to understand technology. Why?

Double-edged Sword

From the other side of the coin I think that IT People still do like to blind non-IT people with science and technical jargon. We are all only human. The IT help desk guy can dumbfound the CEO by dropping in a few technical terms which he then has to explain like a schoolteacher explaining the clouds to a five year old. It is bound to make them feel intellectually superior, they are human. However if a business is to maximise its investment in technology then IT people do need to try to not dumbfound the CEO and just talk in business speak from the start. Focus discussions around the business issue, the solution you propose and the business benefits. It won’t be nearly as much fun, but the end goal makes it worthwhile.

Now, before the denials and howls of rage start, I’m aware that my portrayal of business people and technology people is horribly stereotypical and that there are many exceptions. In fact in my experience, IT professionals are highly intelligent, have an outstanding grasp of current affairs and are perfectly capable at explaining their art in plain English.

The issue might be the motivation to do so. Which leads me to my hypothesis

“Why business and IT people don’t talk the same language”

Evidence 1. IT Is A Creative Science

I have a theory that aside from the fun of dumbfounding the CEO, developers and technologists unconsciously default to tech language because they love nothing more than a license to create. In my experience developers are usually highly creative humans and as soon as they hear a business need they start going through the creative possibilities in their mind – something often referred to as ‘solutioneering’.

I’ve never yet met a developer who would rather create an application by following an explicit set of functional requirements than freestyling an amazing application that will take the customer’s breath away. So the possibility of landing a free license from someone to create something beautiful on their behalf must be hard to resist. And licenses come in the form of woolly requirements explained in a short conversation that both parties are eager to end as quickly as possible. The business person tries to explain what he thinks the app needs to do and the developer, already designing ideas in his head replies, “I know exactly what you mean, just leave it with me.”

The business person who doesn’t drill down into the must have requirements from a business perspective is a gift to the creative developer. Their brains get to work and they create the technology equivalent of a work of art. I have seen this so many times, and it’s not just me, a global well known software development company has discovered that 70% of the features they include in their platform are never actually used by customers.

The fact that it’s really complicated, or not intuitive to use or not actually solving the business problem is unfortunate, but they will be so enthusiastic about their creation that they will convince the business person it’s brilliant because it’s bleeding edge and innovation requires extra investment. The conversation goes like this:

“So this is the system I’ve built for you, and I’ve managed to add some really great features, people will find them so useful. Sit down and I’ll talk you through the instructions on how to use it, it’s maybe not that intuitive because it is quite complex but remember it’s not designed for you, the users will totally get it in no time. Most big IT systems are like this which is why you have to train people how to use them.”

So everyone is put through a mandatory training course to learn to use the new system and then it goes live to huge fanfare and very quickly people need to develop workarounds because it doesn’t do what they need, and those workarounds affect other departments who then have to workaround the first workaround and so on.

Within a few months everyone reaches the same conclusion, the system doesn’t do the job but all the various workarounds do even though they are laborious and time intensive so they become standard business practice while the system languishes in a server equivalent of a dusty shelf.

Evidence 2. Business people don’t understand English when spoken by an IT Person

There is one other puzzling phenomenon I’m interested to know if others have experienced. As a business technologist, I have noticed that almost as soon as I start explaining a reasonably simple concept, or a new way of working, some people say “I’m sorry I don’t think the way you techies do, I really don’t understand what you are talking about.”

Well since I’m not a techie either, I know I’m talking in plain English, but it’s perhaps new plain English. Taking a deep breath I reply, “All I said was that customers want to have a choice on how they engage with your business.” or “We need to define your product and service catalogue.”

Not one word in either of those sentences is remotely technical or even referencing anything to do with technology. It’s about customers, products and services, and every single organisation has those in some form or they shouldn’t exist.

But they’re not listening to the words because I have IT in my job description, and so that means I won’t be able to talk to them in their language about their business. They are convinced that it’s only a matter of minutes before I ask them to explain their thoughts on the differences between C++ and Java or what algorithms are used in machine learning and they don’t really understand those things, but equally they don’t want to be exposed, so the shutters go up and communication is over.

“Sorry I don’t understand what you mean,” really means “please don’t talk to me about this, I don’t know if I’m even using my iPhone properly yet and you’re from IT so you are going to expect me to follow a technical discussion which I’ll feel stupid if I don’t understand so I’d rather just not start.” If I had a Bitcoin for every time that has happened I would be retiring in Malibu by lunchtime.

So the equation is balanced, but it’s not helpful to either side and it’s hurting our economy. We have business people who don’t want to talk about technology and technologists who would much rather talk technology.

Both sides don’t communicate well, is the role of the CIO still relevant?

Until the business and technology strategy is as natural to senior executives as cash flow forecasting, then someone needs to drive the use of technology for enabling the business and reaching customers. But in the manner of turkeys voting for christmas, are CIOs really going to push their board colleagues to learn and understand the technology for themselves?

Whether my hypothesis is correct remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, the responsibility lies with the CEOs and every other business leader – get stuck in, ask questions till you understand the answers. Build your confidence to the extent that you know enough about the technology required in your business to be able to make informed decisions. Look at what your competitors are doing. Look at what other businesses are investing in. Use social media and the latest on-trend apps, explore the digital community and find apps you actually find useful. Investigate the new disruptors on the horizon, see through the hype and the noise – can you see where they could be applicable to your business? Challenge your technologists to talk in business terms and challenge yourself to understand the technology.

Through all of this self-development you should keep the goal firmly in mind – being able to confidently include technology as an integral component in your business strategy. It’s where the world is going and you are playing catch up. Your intelligence will stand you in good stead, and I promise you, you won’t ever need to write code.

Sally Edgar, Senior Transformation Consultant, Waterstons

Sally Edgar

Senior Transformation Consultant, Waterstons

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