Strategic CIOs, on Growth and Transformation

Strategic CIOs, on Growth and Transformation

How top IT leaders are closing talent gaps, adopting new technologies, and forging business alignments.

It’s no secret that the role of CIO has changed dramatically in recent years.

From a purely operational function, CIOs now need to be transformation leaders. And while IT was once known, not-so affectionately, as the department of “no and slow,” today it must illuminate the art of the possible. By showing how technology can vastly improve the way a company functions, creates, innovates, and wins.

In short, IT is all about driving growth — and finding the right talent to make it happen.

But how’s all this playing out on the front lines of major businesses? Connected Futures spoke with a number of leading CIOs (some of whom requested anonymity) about their transformation efforts and business growth strategies. In particular, their efforts to find and develop talent to meet these new demands.

“I think our business leadership has gotten quite savvy in the use of technology,” said the CIO of a European-based retailer. “And they are challenging IT in what they want that technology experience to be.”

That means CIOs must rethink the very nature of their role. “As an IT leader,” the retail CIO continued, “I’m no longer just an engineer. I’m an engineer that has to work with the business to make sure I understand their requirements, and they understand how I can deliver them.”

However, these new expectations expose some critical skills gaps in IT, as we confirmed in a recent Cisco study, Next-Generation IT Talent Strategies. In a survey of 600 IT and business decision-makers across multiple industries and countries, business acumen was the top area in which IT was seen to be falling short — followed by new challenges from emerging technologies.

In our interviews with IT leaders, the need for greater business awareness also showed up as a top-of-mind concern.

“Even for an infrastructure leader,” said Jon Harding, Global CIO at Conair Corp., “I want to know that that person’s capable of talking in business terms. Or if they aren’t, that they’re very committed to learn.”

Cisco’s survey also highlighted that while many believe IT is not responding fast enough to change, a majority expect IT to take the lead in driving transformation across the organization — a sentiment that was echoed in our CIO interviews.

“Your folks can’t just be technologists,” added the global CIO of a major North American manufacturer. “Because when a business unit is not willing to make a decision without bringing in the IT resource, you’ve got to have the right type of players involved.”

Such talent can be tough to find, of course. A more diverse perspective — along with remote work capabilities that can connect talented people from different regions — can go a long way toward opening up new sources of talent.

“I need to find individuals out there that bring both sides to the table,” the manufacturing CIO added. “That like change. That don’t like steady safe. And that talent is very difficult to find. So, to do that, I need to open up to a much more global mindset.”

 

New Tech, New Talent

Of course, technology will always be at the heart of IT. And in Cisco’s survey, emerging technologies like AI, advanced analytics, and virtual reality were also seen to be widening the talent gap.

“Artificial intelligence and other tools are getting better and smarter,” said another North American retail CIO. “But we have to have the people to put some of these tools in place.”

Joseph DeBella, CIO at Arizona Beverage Company, stressed that the competition for those skills can be fierce.

“As these vastly new technologies commercialize their way into marketplaces,” he said, “the skills pool is small.”

But he also believes that investments in these skills promise to pay off in big ways. “I’m hiring in a skill that I know is going to cost me a lot of money,” he added, “but I’m hiring a skill that can do four times what some of our legacy skills could do.”

One way to capture hard-to-find talent in emerging tech or cybersecurity is by starting at the university level.

“Cybersecurity is one of the disciplines that we’re recruiting out of our campus technology development program,” the CIO of a retail bank said. “Several universities in our target set of schools have begun to offer degrees in it, so that is helping the pipeline.”

Of course, foundational tech skills are changing as well and reflect the overall need for tighter alignment with the business. Enterprise architecture, for example, demands a new level of business awareness, including clear communication skills and insight into how technology will enable future opportunities.

“It’s a mixture of art and science around architecture,” a retail CIO stressed. “We want to own our future going forward. So, it’s important that we have people that can understand how the house is going to be built. And that the foundations that you lay is going to support the upper floors and the features you want to add later.”

Building from Within

It’s no surprise that in Cisco’s study, 65 percent of respondents were willing to hire for skills in emerging technologies like AI. (The next highest was augmented and virtual reality at 43 percent.)

But in most other areas, a strong majority still favored developing their existing talent from within, whether through internal retraining, outside courses, or interdepartmental rotations.

Such a commitment to developing talent increases the scope, range, and innovation of your team, while also creating a draw for new talent.

“A critical change is the fact that you’re much more of a human asset manager,” a North American retail CIO said. “In managing talent and pulling potential out of people. And the best way to acquire new talent is to have your existing talent in social media telling their friends, ‘Oh, you’ve got to come here. This is crazy great; I’m learning so much.’ ”

Again, a key skill for IT’s expanded purview is business acumen. So, tech leaders are scrambling to raise awareness and communications skills on their teams to support this tighter relationship.

“A huge skillset is being able to speak the business side’s language,” said Terry Dwyer, CIO at  Long & Foster Real Estate. “Our senior tech guys, I’ll send them off to a tech conference or something like that. But the project managers, you send them to a financial management class; you send them to a marketing class.”

One low-cost way to bolster these skills is through cross-functional rotations. In Cisco’s survey, this was the top training strategy (cited by 60 percent) to support business transformation.

“We encourage people to take other roles,” said the CIO of a major North American manufacturer. “If you see a job in a business unit you might be interested in, go for it. One of my direct reports, she just came out of one of the business units for the last three or four years. And, she’s probably now one of my strongest players.”

Managing Up, and Looking Ahead

In this time of dynamic change for IT, it’s critical to create a culture of constant learning. Yet not all companies are responding. In Cisco’s survey, training budgets for most organizations remained flat, although respondents whose companies were more successful in their transformation initiatives were most likely to see increases.

This speaks to the critical need for CIOs to gain the proverbial “seat at the table,” to express their needs to the CEO, the board, or the CFO — whoever must understand that IT’s concerns around talent, budget, and resources, are, more than ever, business concerns.

“It’s not really about IT sitting in the CEO’s office and saying, ‘I need you to give IT money because IT needs to invest in X,’ ” another North American retail CIO said. “It’s, ‘I need to improve my supply chain. I need to improve my collaboration platform. I need to improve speed to market.’ You’re doing a business role, a business function.”

It gets back to the changing role of the CIO. And how, if IT is not already being viewed as a strategic asset, it will have to be. That is, if the business truly wants to succeed.

“I think today, virtually any IT organization of any substance would say that the CIO is one of the most influential members at the leadership table,” the CIO of a European-based retailer said. “That has shaped also the type of people that CIOs are, where they are much more strategic thought leaders, versus operational leaders.”

It also calls for a fundamental reassessment of how IT is compensated, and how success is measured.

“I think there is a very large culture shift in that way,” said the CIO of a North American retail bank. “Traditionally, IT has been measured by one thing, which was cost, and, ‘Did we screw anything up?’ And I think we’re headed towards a world where we’re measured for a very different thing, which is, ‘Have you helped the business?’ ”

Often this demands rethinking the pay structure, between more traditional IT workers and those driving new value.

“We definitely have a bifurcation of how we’re measuring and how we’re compensating people,” the retail banking CIO added. “We have the legacy bank IT employee who’s not compensated particularly well, but also does not have a diverse skill set. Now, if you look at the newer generation coming in, they are highly compensated and expectations are much higher in terms of, ‘Are they making an impact on business?’ ”

Moreover, once business and IT are clearly aligned, overall business successes should reflect back on IT and ensure future support.

“The business needs to be measured on transformational success and rewarded for that,” said DeBella, the CIO of Arizona Beverage, “and this should drive the IT portion of the endeavors.”

While challenging, many CIOs agree that the future is exciting, and rife with opportunities to drive growth and create business value. All of which depends on creating the kinds of partnerships, collaboration, and close alignments that will support true success.

A longtime retail CIO concluded with some thoughts on how the role has changed in recent years.

“I think a lot more about managing effective change today,” the CIO said. “And one of the biggest changes is that you can make a real difference in people’s lives and their careers. Because companies are only made up of people. I try to make sure I’m touching the people side of it, and having a lasting impact.”

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