Don't get Ubered: Be an instigator of digital disruption

Don't get Ubered: Be an instigator of digital disruption

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It's a common complaint from business leaders: IT takes too long to give us what we need. Not only is creating impatience in business leaders bad for a CIO's reputation, it also leads to growth in "shadow" or "rogue" IT, as frustrated business leaders seek a more immediate solution. The answer is for IT to speed up its work, but that's a tall order for many, who already feel they're moving as fast as they can and then some.

In an interview with The Enterprisers Project, Emmet B. Keeffe, CEO of the software visualization company iRise, explains how technology leaders can and must speed up their projects.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): IT is often accused of moving too slowly. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

Keeffe: CIOs and their organizations have struggled with this for years. Just look at prominent CIO surveys. "Aligning IT with the business" has been a top priority and concern for as long as I can remember. But it wouldn't be if IT organizations were more agile and responsive to business demands.

Combine that with this total onslaught of technology advancement we're seeing today, and the problem gets bigger. Mobile, social, cloud, data, the list goes on and on. The more slowly that CIOs and their teams find the right fit for these technologies, the faster their CEOs and executive committees start looking for a new IT leader.

TEP: Is part of the problem a lack of communications between IT and the business?

Keeffe: As I keep hearing from CIOs, the communication problem is two-fold. First, CIOs are still grappling with demonstrating their organizations' value to the company. Again, that's hard to do if they're not delivering results fast enough. So you have the ongoing problem.

But second, you have the newer problem of truly collaborating with business partners to determine how these new technologies can deliver value. We've seen plenty of examples of forward-looking IT shops using data to drive better decisions, or mobile applications to enhance customer experience or empower their field sales force, but it's a rare CIO who has cracked the code on all the new potentially powerful, enabling technologies.

TEP: What are the biggest impediments preventing CIOs from deploying new technologies the business needs?

Keeffe: There will always be the classic challenges around people, process and technologies. There's also the too-common phenomenon of "buzzword compliance." If you ask CIOs what they're doing around a particular technology that's getting a lot of attention (for better or worse), many will tell you, "We're all over that! We're making big investments there, and we expect to see great results!" But when you get into more depth, there's not much there.

Too much of that is spurred by business partners who aren't tech-savvy or knowledgeable. It's the old airline magazine problem: A non-IT executive reads some generic story about cloud computing, and then runs into the CIO's office, frantically asking, "Where's our cloud? Can I see it?"

That's not to say that the business doesn't have the right priorities in mind. But often times, they hear about a particular technology and think it's the answer to a business problem. When business leaders consult their CIOs about it, the CIOs might think they're obliged to pursue it. What the CIO should be doing is explaining the technology's capability in business terms, not bits and bytes, and defining what the opportunity could be, or outright saying no and explaining why there's a better way.

TEP: So CIOs should sometimes push back against business requests?

Keeffe: When new CIOs take the helm, they're instantly expected to be change agents. But truly driving change requires assertiveness and leadership. The business has its needs, and the CIO needs to understand them, size them up, and drive the IT organization to find the best solution.

If CIOs don't produce results, at a high speed, they'll keep the reputation that has dogged IT for too long: too slow, too costly, and not innovative enough.

TEP: You've talked about the balance between quick wins and big disruptions. How do you find that balance? And how do you avoid making quick wins at the cost of bigger initiatives that may need to integrate with whatever you've quickly put in place?

Keeffe: Well, that's exactly the question a CIO has to tackle. One thing is to forcefully filter every airplane-magazine-driven request for "transformational" strategic value; to say, "I can't deliver this 10 percent innovation because it'll cost us this 40 percent improvement." Another is to make sure all your efforts are part of a coordinated plan, so that the tech solution you ramp up this year will work with the larger project that goes live next year.

A bigger factor is considering the disruptive potential of various technologies and your responses to them. Borders, Blockbuster, Best Buy and more have all been hobbled or destroyed by digital innovation, whether it was Amazon doing a better job of selling physical objects, or Netflix completely rewriting the playbook, first for DVD rental, and then with video streaming.

In all of these cases, we see strategic failures built around technology. And today, we're seeing Uber, Airbnb and other "sharing economy" services usher in another wave of disruption. That's the key to surviving, and thriving: a strategic focus on disruption, to the point that you should be looking to disrupt your own business model, before some 22-year-olds in Silicon Valley do it for you.

TEP: What are some examples of changes that can increase velocity? Are some tech leaders focusing on the wrong changes, and if so, what and why?

Keeffe: Tech leaders are focused on all sorts of changes, often to provide that buzzword compliance I mentioned earlier. I've talked to CIOs about a new idea for change only to hear, "We can't handle any more change." Dig in, and you see that much of the change isn't really making things better. A CIO has a lot of levers to pull, but at any given time, only a couple of them are going to significantly change how IT works, or the value it delivers. IT leaders need to focus on the real bottlenecks and obstacles, on the changes that deliver significant, meaningful improvement.

I've been particularly focused on software delivery for years. For most enterprises, it takes too long, and what's produced is terrible, resulting in cycle after cycle of rework, until someone declares it good enough to release, so they can start the next 12-to-18-month iteration to improve it, by which time, the marketplace or the technology or their users have moved on.

IT leaders need to fix an essentially broken process. It takes too long to figure out the requirements of an application. They're presented to developers as a stack of text requirements no one in the business team really reads. There's been no significant design conversation. And the coded results either result in months of explicit rework, or additional agile scrums to get the app where it could've been in half the time.

Just putting in a few pockets of agile methodology won't solve the problem, either. Getting agile to scale and to work with distributed teams is a huge challenge, too. We champion collaborative visualization and rapid prototyping as a way to help overcome these challenges, whether for agile or waterfall projects. But regardless of how a CIO tackles it, poor software delivery is a fundamental crisis for any IT organization that's expected to be fast, innovative, and value-adding.

TEP: Any other advice you'd offer CIOs? Anything they should make sure not to do?

Keeffe: Don't settle for a seat at the table. Every CIO faces his or her own challenges, but one thing we've been hearing for something like a decade is business and IT alignment and getting a seat at the table. But at this stage of the game, when software and the Internet define most businesses to their users, being at the table isn't enough. CIOs need to be calling the business to the table, and presenting innovative ways to thrive.

Rise recently held a CIO event in New York, and though it wasn't explicitly on the agenda, the one thing every participant talked about was disruption and the potential for startups to Uber them with a new digital business model, or for established competitors to beat them to a new digitally driven punch. They were focused on what was going on in the competitive landscape, figuring out how to act immediately on opportunity, and how to make sure their business leaders were listening.

So if there are any CIOs left out there still calling alignment a job well-done, my advice would be to keep pushing to a higher level, instigating strategic change rather than only falling in line with it.

Emmet B. Keeffe III co-founded iRise in 1996 with a vision to transform how business and IT stakeholders communicate about requirements for business software. He also sits on the board of UST Global, a global IT services firm.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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