IT leaders and organisational strategy
Ade McCormack, Founder, Digital Readiness Institute
The changing nature of strategy
In my last article, I talked about the notion of ‘synthetic certainty’ and how this industrial era condition no longer applies in a world where natural, biological, technological, social, financial and political forces are on the rise and chaotically interacting. How can we have a 3-year plan or a 2030 vision, when we don’t know how the environment in which our organisation operates will be next week? Strategy as taught by business schools globally is no longer relevant in an increasingly tempestuous world. Opportunities and threats will be missed if business leaders ignore what is happening around them as they doggedly pursue the plan. As philosopher, Mike Tyson famously pointed out, “The plan goes out of the window, after the first punch”. Looking at it from another perspective, the fighter pilot who plans their manoeuvres prior to a forthcoming dogfight will not be involved in many such fights. Situational awareness trumps strategy. Capitalising on what is actually happening today is more important than focusing on what might happen tomorrow.
This presents several opportunities for IT leaders. The first of which is to help the senior executives sense what is happening in and around the organisation. IoT comes to mind. Creating new sources of data helps to build a richer picture of what is happening in reality. The use of analytics tools will turn that data into insight. This might however require a major systems integration exercise to ensure that the ‘insights’ are being fished from a data lake and not a data cesspit. The focus on situational awareness and the here and now will see long fuse, big bang project delivery replaced by a more rapid prototyping approach. Given that the IT function is the spiritual home of agile, formally known as rapid application development, you are well placed to take the lead on this. You might push back by flagging that this is not a particularly great insight as you have been doing this for decades. The opportunity here is not in ‘run the business’ project delivery or even in responding to ‘change the business’ edicts, but in the IT function taking the initiative to demonstrate how ‘new’ new technologies can be applied to solving organisational challenges and creating new sources of cash.
Very new technologies
Unfortunately, some leaders exhibit what I call T3 syndrome. When presented with an emerging technology, despite its business potential being obvious to the IT leader, the executive dismisses it as a toy. However, other players in the market see its potential and so the emerging technology becomes a threat to the organisation. Eventually, the consumers in your market come to expect this technological innovation and now this emerging technology has become market table stakes and your company is consequently no longer in that market. This executive myopia is in large part the fault of the IT leader. Just because you see its potential doesn’t make it a given that others will too. Business leaders need to see the technology in context to appreciate its potential. Thus I encourage the IT function to use its prototyping skills to showcase emerging technologies in a manner that displays future paths the organisation might take.
It is not clear to me that IT leaders understand that data is a new asset class. The ‘I’ in CIO does not of course stand for ‘IT manager’. It stands for the primary derivative of data, information. If we think of data as the crude oil and information as the refined derivative, then the IT function has focused more on storing and protecting the oil than in helping the organisation exploit it. In fairness, the IT department is playing a role in data exploitation through the provision of analytics tools. The growth of the data scientist has been a positive development but it has caused the role to drift away from the IT function, which is a mistake given the importance of machine learning in trend detection. With IoT and social media, the data opportunity is only going to increase. I think this is an opportunity for IT leaders to reposition themselves. Data in the digital age is a form of capital. CEOs like capital. If you position yourself with this in mind, your c-suite relevance will surge.
Like the rise of digital, Covid-19 presents an opportunity for IT leaders to present themselves as the eyes and ears of the organisation as well as the creators of new sources of value. This has to be preferable to the current trend of becoming the Zoom licence manager. To use a term from a bygone era, IT leaders need to be perceived as strategically relevant.
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