The CIO Role and Driving Innovation: Gap or Opportunity?

Posted on January 14, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

Ask yourself: is the CIO a driver of Innovation in your enterprise?

The gap: are CIOs missing the Social Media boat?

The MIT Sloan Management Review recently published results from a survey of business executives, managers and analysts from organizations around the world, aiming to understand how companies apply Social Media. I was intrigued by the following excerpt:

48% – Percentage of CEOs who believe social media is important or somewhat important to their business today.

24% – Percentage of CIOs who believe the same thing.

Boat steering wheel

Now, in general it’s a good thing that CEOs have more vision; standing on the command bridge of the corporate ship, they’d better be looking ahead! But in this particular context, wouldn’t we expect the CIO, owner of the very technology that Social Media are based on, to have at least as forward-looking a perception of these new tools?

Have many CIOs fallen asleep at the wheel? No; we have a gap, but it isn’t due to negligence. There is a different cause at play.

The CIO, Innovation, and the Status Quo

The Chief Information Officer deals in some of the most innovative tools a company will see, but their attitude towards this innovation is inherently ambivalent. Consider the story an entrepreneur I know once told me: he’d pitched his product to a CIO at a convention, and the guy responded “I just love this product – and over my dead body will it get into my company!”  I know he was sincere – I’ve seen the product (it was lovely!) and I’ve met this attitude many times during my career in the IT world. The point is, the CIO’s perceived task isn’t to indulge in playing with new toys – it is to keep the business running, to prevent any outages or viruses taking down the incredibly sophisticated computer systems that are the lifeblood of any organization. Innovation is risky; the cost of failure when a corporate server infrastructure is at stake can be more than any executive would contemplate risking. Besides, nobody praises IT when things run smoothly, but everybody hates them if anything fails to work; hardly an incentive to deviate from the status quo.

But the CEOs in the MIT Sloan survey were twice as willing to innovate with Social Media! Aren’t they, too, eager to prevent failure? No doubt they are, but they’re not IT experts; I speculate that it’s their blissful ignorance of the implications that helps them see farther. The bridge of a ship is, after all, more conducive to the long view than the engine room.

And let me tell you, as a longtime Principal Engineer in IT, and one whose main role was to lead innovation and change: I had my successes, but it wasn’t easy. Innovation and IT don’t easily mix. It took much dogged perseverance and negotiation to make changes stick. In fact, now that I consult to organizations on computing effectiveness, it is rarely the CIO that makes the first contact. It is usually the CEO, or VP HR, or Engineering, or Marketing… the CIO typically enters the action at a later point.

The CIO’s potential role as a driver of Innovation

And yet – I sincerely believe – the CIO  is in a unique position to abandon the status quo and drive computing innovation through the company. The needs are there: employees’ computer-mediated productivity is far from satisfactory (just look at Email Overload!). The opportunities are there: the progress in software and hardware is so rapid, that among the countless new products lurk many that can make a crucial improvement in business effectiveness.

I’ve seen many CIOs in my long career, and occasionally one of them decides to pick up this challenge, and makes Innovation a key part of their management philosophy. And then – magic starts happening. IT engineers start doing amazing work (and feeling much more motivated and happy with their jobs). The contribution of IT to the bottom line becomes much more noticeable, once it makes the leap from maintaining server uptime to increasing actual sales in the company’s core business. The company itself is transformed, as new and better tools are brought in, and everyone lives at the forward edge of the present rather than in the technological past (I’m not talking about living in the future – that is really too risky for most large organizations).

And of course, a CIO that does this – and knows how to do it with the care and intelligence needed to avoid unacceptable  risks – will become a visible partner in the company’s success, and reap the fruit of his or her daring.

How you can transform your IT group and improve business results

So – what can you do, if you’re a CIO and are willing to consider leaving your comfort zone in order to champion innovation?

You will face a number of challenges. On the one hand, you need to get your company to allow you to experiment with innovative technology – you can do some exploring in stealth mode, and should, but at some point you’ll need to get management to approve the direction and to fund it. On the other hand, you need to get your people to do it – to change what they’re used to doing – and change is always hard, certainly in an organization as inherently conservative as a large IT group.

There are ways to do this, and I may write a separate post about some that I’ve witnessed or played a part in. Some are top-down, starting with the IT group’s charter and long-term goals; others are bottom up, starting with putting in place channels for safely trying out innovative tools on a smaller scale by early adopters. Since the end goal is to improve business results – which you will, if you do the right things in your local context – you will need to measure the impact on these results and make it visible to management. The opportunities for change are intense, and well worth the careful planning and the effort. If you want to talk about it, you know who to call.

And if you’re a CEO, there’s a lot you can do yourself – by empowering your IT organization to step forward and take some calculated risks, and by transmitting clear expectations that just keeping the servers running is not enough in your view. So, if you’re among the 48% of CEOs who believe social media is important, and your CIO is not among the 24% who already believe the same thing, try to understand what it would take to make that CIO more eager to embrace the new tools and to identify the ones coming down the road beyond them. You can’t afford not to!