The CIO’s digital dilemma

Storm clouds gathering for the CIO'sIn 2014, I did a talk on the challenges which the new digital agenda presents for CIO’s. As I read back over it, that conversation seems like a long time ago. But in some recent discussions with CIO’s, it’s clear that many are still wrestling with the same issues. I thought it was worth capturing the essence of that talk here. The other posts in the blog take the conversation forward into “what do I do next” …


The CIO’s digital dilemma

CIOs today are standing in the middle of a digital hailstorm, and, for many, it’s hard to see a clear way forwards. And what’s particularly frustrating is that only recently the clouds seemed to have parted.

Years of wrestling with ERP implementations, troubled outsourcing relationships and cost efficiencies finally seemed to be paying off, with most CIOs feeling that they were at last in control of the agenda. Service was stable, projects were delivered and CIOs were becoming more and more integrated to the broader strategic conversation.

But alongside this increasing maturity of the traditional IT agenda, a revolution has been taking place. And like all good revolutions, its been led by the people. Even though Facebook was only started 12 years ago, it now has well over a billion active monthly users. And probably none of the 7 billion people on the planet knew they needed Facebook before it was invented. At the latest count, Facebook takes in more raw data in a day than most companies have in total, and unless they turn that data into insight in near real-time, it’s of little value. These days, things move fast. This new ecosystem of search, social and mobile monetisation has forced the creation of new technologies: from MapReduce and NoSQL in data through Agile and Continuous Integration in delivery though to AWS and GCP in cloud infrastructure.

We’ve witnessed the creation of some of the world’s most valuable companies in the last two decades, powered by technology. For those of us who have spent our career in IT, this should bring tears of joy to our eyes. At last our time has come. But for many CIOs it feels like standing on one side of the Grand Canyon and looking across at the party on the other side …

The rules of this new digital world turn our old rules on their head. So where we once wanted clear return on capital, now we need test and learn; and where we wanted a hard perimeter of protection, now we need openness and connectedness. And perhaps most challenging of all for CIOs, where we once wanted a broad, business-minded generalist, now we want a deep, digital technologist. Most likely, in truth, we want both, the mythical “T-shaped leader”. If you were starting a business today, and many people are, you would be wise to build its technology platforms on cloud infrastructure, with user-centred, agile approaches. But of course, you’re not starting your business today, and someone has to look after that legacy COBOL on the mainframe. But by the way, whatever you are going to do, you’d better get on with it. These days, things move fast.

So whereas you might not choose to start from here, there’s no point dwelling on it. The sooner you walk down into the canyon and up the other side, the better. And while you’re at it, tear up the old playbook as well. Anything and everything you can build like a startup, you should. Of course, it’s not that you don’t realise this, it’s probably that you don’t know how. So learn by doing. While you’re at it, ring-fence investment for innovation projects that don’t follow normal governance rules. Make decisions quickly. Shorten testing cycles and do you final testing with the customer. Oh, and finally, brush up your technical skills, your future is T-shaped.

The CIO’s digital dilemma

Rob works with technology start ups and leading retailers on the impact and opportunities of digital technologies

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