IT leadership: A CIO's advice for the next generation

As infrastructure and operations become commodities, IT leaders need to stand out in new ways. That means delivering at the business level – and leading an ever-evolving team
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The role of IT has dramatically changed over the years, and the past few years have seen an acceleration of those changes. As I embark on retirement after a technology career that started in 1978 and IT roles starting in 1986, I have some reflections and hopes to share with the next generation of IT leaders.

Why IT is better off than yesterday

IT professionals and their technology providers have made many improvements that have positioned us well. We no longer have to share character-based terminals due to expense, ship magnetic tape for bulk data transfers, or distribute encryption keys to various modems around the enterprise. Instead, we can focus on enabling mobile apps and addressing scalability with cloud resources.

It used to take months to procure hardware, install it in the data center, provision the system software, and turn it over to developers to start building a solution. Today, a department with a purchasing card can start developing and deploying immediately. Modern development technologies can deliver a working solution much earlier in the cycle and facilitate continuous improvement. This is far superior to the lengthy update cycles of the past.

Because the battles required to get us to the present have been fought and won, we can look forward, perhaps more than ever before.

We can worry much less about the reliability and availability of collaboration tools. If email is down, chat will likely be up. If the chat service is down, the video service should be up. In the worst case, mobile devices and public tools allow the organization to continue communicating.

Learning how to deliver service quality in a complex and dynamic environment has always been a challenge for IT teams. Because the battles required to get us to the present have been fought and won, we can look forward, perhaps more than ever before. As infrastructure and operations become commodities, today’s IT leaders are able to focus on delivering business value and taking IT’s role in the organization into the future.

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How to plan for tomorrow

I’ve always felt that the best reason for any person to become an IT leader is to make the enterprise a better place. I hope that others follow that path, but it is clear that the journey is changing. IT leaders must still get the right team and other resources in place and execute plans to to improve the business. But now, IT leaders must focus on enterprise issues outside IT more than ever. They should start with a vision and a strategy.

Establishing an IT vision and strategy require an assessment of the problems and opportunities facing the entire organization. A leader must determine what needs to be done now, what needs to be started now because of the time and effort involved, and what can wait for the right circumstances to emerge. The strategy must also consider which resources are available and how they can best be deployed.

The best reason for any person to become an IT leader is to make the enterprise a better place.

The vision and strategy leads directly to the IT organization plan. Is cost the primary business driver? If so, a team of visionaries may not be best for your IT organization. Are you in a small enterprise looking to break barriers and grow at an extraordinary pace? A team of professionals that prioritize stability above all else might not be the right fit. Almost certainly, you will need to find a balance suitable for your circumstances, experimenting where it makes sense (the new customer engagement application, for example) and using stable solutions where experimentation is unlikely to deliver excess value (the payroll system, for example).

Regardless, leaders will need to continue their transition from an IT role to a business technology consultant role. Infrastructure, operations, user support, collaboration, and basic business capabilities are increasingly assumed to be a given by business leaders. This means IT leaders must understand what the business needs, how to provide solutions to those needs, and decide what’s core and what could be shifted to partners. Reducing the relative cost of resources and activities that don’t directly deliver business advantage will continue to be a priority.

IT leaders now need to identify and exploit technology to enable new business opportunities, whether it’s machine learning, Internet of Things, data and analytics, or a capability unique to their enterprise. Leaders should have a realistic view of how achievable a goal or initiative is, how impactful it will be on the business, and how to integrate it with the rest of the portfolio. I say portfolio because there should be a mix of programs underway, each with costs and risks appropriate to the enterprise environment. 

Thinking in portfolio terms is also important because the solutions requested by internal customers will vary in their impact on the enterprise, and not necessarily in proportion to the enthusiasm with which they are requested. IT leaders, due to limited resources, will often have to mediate between business units and allocate resources appropriately. Framing the IT strategy in business terms can help justify those decisions.

Finally, IT leaders will continue to steward the enterprise resources for which there is no natural business owner. Examples include mobile devices, email, chat, document preparation and sharing, video, and likely other technologies. If your enterprise is not using current solutions, this can be a great opportunity. However, it may be that the cultural changes required to exploit modern solutions are greater than the technology challenges. Making cultural changes will require careful planning and will require skills development for some IT organizations.

All of this work is difficult and impacts the entire organization. Failure can be painfully obvious. Because your successes may not always be visible, IT leaders need to find ways to stand out. Now, and into the future, that means delivering at the business level. It likely means your IT team will be evolving continuously.

How to position the IT organization for the future

I’ve learned over the years that the role of IT is always changing. I expect those changes to continue.

IT organizations need to stay current with technology and build or acquire the skills necessary to exploit those technologies. However, for a large number of technology tools used by enterprises, that task is getting easier and moving to the domain of the user community.

In the future more business units will be owning and running their own technology solutions, as many already are. That means IT leaders — who again should be thinking of themselves as cross-functional business leaders — will need to consider what IT owns, what other business units own, and what should be consolidated and managed as an enterprise asset.

IT needs to set enterprise norms and standards for information solutions. They need to facilitate or dictate (depending on the enterprise culture) how to integrate data across the enterprise on various platforms, how to ensure information security, how to comply with regulations, how to specify which standard solutions are approved, and how to determine that user and customer service levels are satisfactory. These are difficult tasks, but will become easier if the risks, costs, and benefits are described in business terms.

IT leaders also need to have the business perspective to determine when standards and consistency are not required and that experimentation and innovation are more appropriate. Ideally they will have the strategic vision to understand when it is time to transition from innovation to standardization in a given technology domain.

Change leadership: A big opportunity

IT is at the boundary of change in the technology environment and the business environment. As more enterprises adopt increasing amounts of technology, that gives IT organizations the opportunity to become culture leaders, whether by becoming innovation champions, enabling the enterprise with collaboration tools, modeling behaviors with a remote workforce, or focusing on diversity and inclusion initiatives. IT organizations should take advantage of these opportunities.

Change leadership in particular is a significant opportunity. Effective IT organizations typically have solid practices in place for leading change. Change leadership is not always practiced as effectively at the enterprise level. IT organizations can adapt and extend their change leadership practices and skills to lead and improve the enterprise. Again, presenting the benefits in business terms will be an advantage.

Technology solutions are becoming more vital and more pervasive. Today and into the future, IT leaders must balance innovation, flexibility, and time to market with efficiency, control, and sustainability. They should be building environments and cultures in which technology consumers become self-controlling, rather than trying to manage everything centrally. By consistently doing that and by delivering business value through solutions, culture, and collaboration, IT will be poised to shine.

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Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics.