by Derek Slater

Five big ideas for reinventing IT

Aug 03, 2021
IT Leadership

Whatever your challenges, reinvention requires big thinking.

An electified, exploding light bulb. [ideas / innovation / transformation]
Credit: Igor Stevanovic / Getty Images

Driven by a need to meet rapidly evolving business requirements, CIOs find themselves writing a new playbook, one focused on agility, overcoming old habits and technical debt, reskilling the workforce, and even reshaping the IT mandate.

The big ideas offered here came up in CIO’s recent CIO Think Tank discussions on IT reinvention—virtual roundtables that brought together 36 IT leaders to unpack this important issue.

They won’t work for every organization, but if one applies to yours, you’ve gotten your time’s worth, many times over.

Throw out your strategic plan

“I stopped using a strategic plan, ‘This is what we’re going to do in year one, this is what we’re going to do in year two,’” said Rodney Nobles, CIO/CSO, Waukesha County Technical College, Wisconsin. Instead, Nobles created a simple “brand statement” for IT: reinvent, rethink, repurpose processes and technology so people can have content anytime, anywhere, on any device.

That’s easy to remember and gives the IT department a laser focus. Everything the team touches should focus on achieving that brand statement, Nobles said, “or we don’t do it. We’re education, so we’re about enrollment, retention. and completion. And that’s what we work towards—none of this other stuff that doesn’t matter.”

Create internal incubators for innovation

Several IT leaders noted the use of incubators to help develop more significant ideas, with expectations set differently from the usual requirements and pressures for immediate ROI.

“Every single piece of work we’re doing, one of the biggest questions is: How can we create intellectual property? How can we create IP licensing? How can we create internal startups so we can drive revenue back to the university?” said Lin Zhou, SVP/CIO, The New School.

BMC software takes this approach as well. “We established BMC Innovation Labs to seed organic product innovation, and this is about experimentation: who fails fast or who succeeds fast, you learn and move on to the next one,” said BMC CTO Ram Chakravarti. “That’s a great way to explore leading-edge technology without investing a gazillion dollars.”

Change how you solve problems

At Erickson Living, CIO Hans Keller says reinvention is “less about what we’re doing, and more about how we’re doing it.” Keller is working with his team to apply new disciplines to problem-solving. He describes their evolving method as an “intersection between design thinking, lean, agile, and visual collaboration.”

The visual collaboration component is a particularly new element in this seeming grab-bag of methodologies. Keller says visualization “allows us to take very, very complex pieces and distill them into images so that we can get a better grasp on what people are trying to accomplish.” IT departments that have struggled to find a common language for business objectives or needs might consider an approach like this one. “When we first sit down to tackle new problems, we’re not ‘solutioning’ right away. It’s about digging in and really understanding the problem first,” building a consistent approach to getting everyone on the same page.”

Keller says that of course Erickson is experimenting with RPA, AI, custom software development, and other technologies this year. “But next year that’s going to be just a new set of things. I think the ‘how’ is the critical piece for us.”

Turn IT into a data science department

As the cloud offers more easy-to-consume services, some IT leaders say less focus on infrastructure is required—UC San Diego CIO Vince Kellen said he will soon have no data center to oversee, for the first time in his career. Kellen also said he is gradually changing the entire department to focus on information curation.

“The big purpose for a central IT shop is to convert data and information into meaningful action. And that last bit is now the land of machine learning and data science, so I’m gearing up our office, our unit, to be a data science operations group,” Kellen explained. “Where knowledge is scarce and valuable to the organization, it must be curated in a team, not an individual.”

Many panelists indicated a move to strengthen their data science capabilities—“that’s where we see the most competitive opportunity,” said Carhartt’s CIO/SVP John Hill—but Kellen describes a more extreme kind of data-focused reinvention for IT.

Don’t have an IT department at all

At Ohana Biosciences, VP IT Nathan McBride is trying a completely new model for an IT department, which is very light and radically decentralized.

Ohana has only two people working across units: McBride as the CIO/CISO and “this infrastructure, middleware, DevOps kind of role that I’m creating to work with me.” Each department then has a single “full stack” IT expert, reporting to the business, and fully empowered to apply technology to solve business problems (within certain governance requirements).

“Yes, it’s more expensive up-front to hire these people,” McBride said, but this model is more agile and responsive to the evolving needs of an increasingly tech-savvy business. As a bioscience company, McBride says Ohana employees use a number of highly specialized tools and services, so much so that it’s harder for IT generalists to add a lot of value in managing that toolset.

“I have 20 computational biologists who can run circles around your best AWS guy” in using the cloud for their specific jobs, explained McBride. So, he sees no need to hire an AWS expert; instead, the light central governance model offers those biologists “somebody who can put in AWS governance and provide a framework for these brilliant people to work, and then let them go.”