The information-age tidal wave has submerged our companies and organizations. If the IT department was once contained in a room where brainy technologists worked their magic, today every office, every desk, every employee and manager — and every customer! — is involved with the company’s information technology.
In many ways, this new digital era (“new” relative to eras, of course) has not changed the core mandate of most executives and managers. What has changed is how that mandate is fulfilled. At the C-suite level, for example, the CEO must still guide strategy, instill a culture, lead his or her top management team, and take responsibility for the successes and failures of the company. The Chief Marketing Officer is responsible for the successful positioning of the company’s products in the marketplace. The Chief Operating Officer (COO) is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company.
The role of the Chief Information Officer, however, has been dramatically altered. In her thoughtful new book, Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT, Martha Heller explains the challenges and opportunities that CIOs must face and embrace. The book’s title — as spare and relevant as her chapters — tells the story: CIOs must “be the business.” Information technology is in every nook and cranny of a business. Information technology is back office and front office and connecting the two. Information technology is about digital marketing but also — as one CIO tells Heller — about turning operations into “algorithms.”
CDOs Are Not the Solution
Today’s organizations recognize the omnipresence of information technology in every department and function. One response, according to Heller, is the creation of a new Chief Digital Officer (CDO) function — in essence, relegating the CIO to the operational side of information technology as the fancy new CDO occupies himself or herself with the strategic implications of the digital age. Unfortunately, CDOs are often glorified CMOs — they understand the digital contribution to marketing but do not have a complete end-to-end grasp of the organization.
There is, Heller writes, someone who does have this end-to-end perspective and who understands not only the potential of IT and digital applications and strategies but also the company’s current systems and processes in place. That someone, of course, is the CIO. When the CDOs flame out (in an average of 18 months, according to Heller), CIOs should step forward and fill this “leadership void.” However, she warns CIOs, “you have work to do, especially if your CEO sees you as more operational than strategic.”
Filling the Void
The first step for CIOs who want to become the leaders of the digital function in their companies is to change their mindset, Heller writes. Traditionally, companies rely on “big teams, lots of plants and big equipment” — assets that lose their status in the digital era. Many CIOs may believe that they have to repurpose these assets for the digital age. In truth, Heller explains, much of the legacy infrastructure of a company, including systems and processes, may be obsolete and need to be replaced with digital alternatives.
Another imperative for CIOs taking a greater digital role is to “talk strategy,” she writes. CIOs must continue to be concerned with operational efficiency — but they must also be ready to pivot to discussions of pure strategy (i.e., cutting costs is not a strategy).
CIOs must also adopt a leadership mindset: Information technology may have once been a “support” function, but no more. CIOs cannot wait for business sponsors to tell them what to do; they should sponsor their own projects.
Heller covers much ground in this short but comprehensive book (even discussing the importance of using stories to communicate with non-IT executives). CIOs will find Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT an invaluable guide to thriving in the digital age by an expert in the field.
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