The Shifting Role of Technology Leaders – and What It Means for Business Innovation

Sep 7, 2017
8 Min Read
The Shifting Role of Technology Leaders – and What It Means for Business Innovation

George Westerman thinks that IT leaders need to realize it’s time to change “from a caterpillar into a butterfly.”

Westerman isn’t referring to a change in wardrobe, but rather an evolution of IT leaders’ attitudes and actions.

“The market is moving so fast. Customer and employee expectations are changing so fast. If you do the incremental stuff, you’re going to be left behind,” says Westerman, a research scientist at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.

Westerman has spent much of the last decade pushing for IT managers to become senior partners in the business, to put behind them the “people of no” reputation that gets them shut out of innovation discussions.

“The first step is to stop talking like someone you wouldn’t want to talk to,” he says. “The next step is to start offering substantive solutions and delivering on those solutions.”

The best way to do that, he advises IT leaders, is to keep the conversation focused on value. That means doing “the right things at the right price at the right level of quality” and then moving into determining “how each project can deliver more value and more strategic power.”

A balanced approach

Just a decade ago, the CIO was not generally regarded as a strategic leader, and there was a clear lack of IT and business alignment, finds the 2017 Global Digital IQ Survey by PwC. But the huge shift toward digital means that CEOs have embraced it as part of their mandate, the report finds, and technology is seen as a critical component to the business strategy as well as the business operations.

“I think increasingly the senior teams are tired of having technology people who are just technology people. They are really looking for technology people who understand where the business is going and help the business get there,” Westerman says.

That means that if a technology person wants to be involved in business decisions, “then you need to talk and act differently,” Westerman says. “Gaining some business savvy is essential, whether that’s getting an MBA or sitting down with business people and saying, ‘Hey, what’s important to you?’”

That is going to be a critical step moving forward as PwC’s research shows that the period from inception to disruption is happening more quickly. Researchers say technology leaders need to grasp what’s happening in the employee and customer interactions at every step of the way.

“Instead of the prior decade’s obsession with business IT alignment, enterprises must now pursue a more balanced approach” that focuses equally on business, experience and technology, PwC reports.

At a recent MIT event, Westerman led a panel discussion, “The CIO Adventure: Now, Next and…Beyond” with panelists such as Julia Davis, senior vice president and CIO at Aflac.

Davis spoke of the need for those in IT “to be able to talk the language of business” and understand how to solve the problems of the business. She says she believes that senior IT leaders can help others in IT begin to make the shift, since such employees are usually eager to learn new things and embrace change.

Westerman pointed out during the discussion that when he was a teenager, he wanted to meet a girl who played soccer.

“So, I started playing soccer,” he says, laughing.

The lesson, Westerman explained, is that if IT leaders want to move into the C-suite and give their teams a more critical role in innovation and strategy, then they’re going to have to embrace the same interests as other senior leaders, whether those leaders are from marketing or sales or operations.

Further, Westerman says that tech leaders can’t wait to be invited into business innovation discussions or stand on the sidelines waiting to be put in senior positions. “Don’t wait to be asked, or they will do it without you,” he says, referring to C-suite leaders. “IT knows they need to do this, and I’ve been pushing for them to put themselves in senior positions for the past 10 years.”

Leading initiatives

A new report backs up the idea that CIOs are becoming a more critical component in innovation and business leadership. Specifically, the IT World Canada report finds:

  • 97% of respondents are involved in executive decision-making meetings.
  • 30% of respondents report to the CEO, 21% report to the CFO.
  • Business innovation in products, services and process is identified by CIOs as one of the top three day-to-day priorities, a significant jump from 2016. “It’s indicative of the CIOs need to collaborate more closely with the business-side leadership to improve customer service, customer retention and customer acquisition,” the report says.

The report also finds that CIOs are seeing a bigger chunk of the budget going toward innovation. Specifically, companies with a 1-5% budget boost say 29% will go to innovation. If the expected budget increase was between 15% and 24%, the innovation allotment was 31%.

Interestingly, the report notes that CIOs appear to be “on a kind of winning streak” as they are seen as protectors of a company’s tech assets and critical to digital innovation.

“It is not merely that CIOs are enjoying a raised profile at their organizations, they have, in fact, joined the ‘big table’ of decision-makers at their companies,” the report says. “CIOs enjoy longer tenure in their roles, have the ear – really, the undivided attention – of those at the very top, and are empowered both on paper and in reality, enjoying fatter IT budgets than ever before.”

Still, Westerman says that there are more companies that need to get on board with the growing importance of IT to business innovation, although that’s going to require some cultural shifts.

“They often don’t think of them (IT) as needing to be butterflies,” he says. “They just want them to be faster caterpillars.”

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