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How CIOs can harness the power of open teams
The most successful IT teams are open: They not only share knowledge and work inclusively, but also know the value of transparent, portable, and plentiful data
Earlier this year, an article in CIO Dive called open source in the enterprise the "new normal." That statement becomes even more true when we recognize that openness is about more than just software. It's really an attitude, a spirit – and IT teams everywhere are embracing it as they work to transform the role they play in their organizations.
Acting in a spirit of openness has been a critical facet of working in IT since the inception of our field. Throughout the decades, however, what "openness" has meant to IT leaders and their teams has changed.
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When we track those subtle shifts in meaning, we can note how they've affected the nature of IT leadership – and then we can better understand what today's digital-first landscape demands of IT shops and CIOs.
CIO focus shifts to innovation
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when enterprise IT was in its infancy (and often called something more like “the systems people” – or even just “computers”), people were exploring technical prospects that were perplexing and intimidating for everyone. Upstart systems engineering teams were largely improvising, forming the rulebooks that guided them on the fly. Their work consisted of grappling with exciting new digital technologies now accessible to their businesses, and convincing people to trust them to realize the benefits they might afford (a difficult job since so few people had been exposed to computers!).
To succeed, they had to be open with one another – and in this case, acting "openly" meant sharing best practices they were developing and modifying almost daily, talking candidly about mistakes and failures, and swapping knowledge they gleaned from ushering their businesses into the digital era.
At this time, being a CIO meant being a Chief Infrastructure Officer, someone tasked with getting an organization's first digital systems in place and running smoothly. The question that most concerned the CIO faced with technology decisions was: "Does it work?" Does it function routinely and reliably to help people realize this newfound power of the digital? Do I trust that it’s better than the existing way of working?
Later, in the late 1980s and 1990s (when enterprise IT really found its footing as a standard organizational department), things changed. Digital technologies were becoming more commonplace, not only in the enterprise but also in people's personal lives, and organizations could begin assuming many of their employees had a growing degree of technical aptitude.
During this time, we saw the commodification of IT solutions, the introduction of pre-packaged, off-the-shelf, turnkey solutions enterprises could purchase and implement more readily. More and more, IT workers were playing in sandboxes they hadn't constructed themselves – but standardization meant more people could be IT workers in the first place. The field was open to more people. It was more accessible because these turnkey solutions made participation possible for people to participate even when they lacked specific domain knowledge. (I'm a perfect case in point: I was in accounting when someone tapped me to administer systems.)
"Open" here meant "participatory" or "inclusive," and the CIO was something more like the Chief Integration Officer, someone who oversaw the implementation of all these parceled and modular systems and ensured they were working together optimally. The question this kind of CIO used to assess technology decisions was: "Is it efficient?" Does it all work together seamlessly in ways that add value to the organization rather than hinder productivity? Does everyone on my team need an advanced computer science degree, or are people simply applying process knowledge?
Today, in this era of rampant digital transformation, IT is becoming the asset of a company. In fact, it's becoming so important that people not traditionally concerned with IT are beginning to pay attention to it. Rarely a week goes by, for example, where I don't see at least one article about cloud technologies in high-profile publications targeted at business leaders. And those very business leaders are turning to their IT teams and asking for help on matters that transcend infrastructure or integration. They're asking IT to use the ever-growing stores of data their organizations are generating to deliver insights that can drive the business in new, exciting (and, perhaps most importantly, profitable) directions.
The most successful IT teams are those that are open – that not only share knowledge and work inclusively, as their predecessors did, but also understand the value of transparent, portable, and plentiful data available to them from inside and outside the organization. Today's CIO is therefore much more like a Chief Innovation Officer – a catalyst for ideas that can drive the business, someone who looks at a digital technology and asks: "Is it defining?" Is it providing the kind of valuable insights the organization needs to set its direction and make its most difficult decisions?
Open feels new again
Today's IT leaders (not just CIOs) need to understand how this new era of openness is affecting their work. The fact is that a digital-first world is altering our approach to IT profoundly. In the field's earlier days, when IT was more about infrastructure and integration, IT was more or less reactive. Something happened – a business transaction occurred, a system failed – and IT teams jumped into action, collecting data they could use to either improve or mitigate the situation. Transactional events preceded data analytics.
A digital-first environment flips this scenario. We know that the most successful IT teams are now those that operate in a new mode, an anticipatory mode. They're proactive, not reactive. That means they're not responding to emergencies or contingencies as much as they are driving change, anticipating it, and using data to help the business see possible paths forward. They engage in analytics first, using the insights they gather to fine-tune subsequent transactional events.
To succeed at this, they'll need to approach their work in that familiar spirit of openness – something that really feels new today, even if it has always been normal in IT.