The current business environment is a perfect storm created by the confluence of constant disruption and geopolitical and socioeconomic factors, not to mention the pandemic that’s accelerated tech transformations. All of it has required a degree of reinvention, which as I defined in my previous piece, occurs when an organization shifts responsibilities from traditional cost and complexity management to those that enable every company to become a tech-driven company while simultaneously running and reinventing the business.
How we support this dual mandate is really at the heart of it. Once again, I sat in on a CIO roundtable with a selection of IT business leaders in the public and private sector to have a conversation about reinvention. The larger current concerns for almost all of them coalesce around the abundance of data, the evolving role of IT, and the corresponding need for new skills. There was also a good discussion about building partnerships—both internally within the business and externally with solution providers. Here are some of the takeaways.
Building better experiences
Efficiency is the name of the game for an IT leader of a midwestern consulting firm. “We’re investing to improve the employee experience. Although we’re leveraging some of the collaboration tools that are out there, we really haven’t changed the way we think about how we do work,” they say.
“I’m trying to push my team and the organization to think about how we can leverage these technologies differently. And some of that has to do with the collaborations, some of that has to do with the leveraging data more quickly, effectively, and efficiently.”
An American manufacturer weighs in on the role of IT as an educator. “How do we make our business users and business leaders more digitally savvy? Because if they are not digitally savvy, technology-accelerated adoption doesn’t happen. The shift in our role is to become a teacher of technology in the business context,” they explain.
A sustainability consultancy is building its future around customer centricity. “We’re driving a more customer-centric strategy to build the platforms that allow us to better provide digital solutions to our customers and expose data that we’re collecting on their behalf, as well as help add value. We are investing in digital platforms, digital offerings, integration, and data management to help support that,” says its IT leader.
According to an investment organization’s IT leader, “The trick is now to become customer committed. How do you become customer obsessed? [If] you really find that niche which your customer segment is looking for, [it’s] going to give you that differentiating X factor.”
Taking a holistic view
A global shipping leader looks at the whole business entity through a digital lens. “It’s all about being a digital factory…being able to make all of our software composable pieces [and] building blocks that can be recreated much more quickly than they were initially created for. We have a huge initiative around leveraging data, building data platforms that are curated around communities of interests…because we believe that in the future, all the different business functions will have people with really good analytical skills,” its IT leader explains.
“You have to understand how to work with data, how to draw inference from numbers, and test hypotheses and so forth. We really believe that we need to build these data platforms. We need to not just democratize data…you have to do it in a way that is in compliance, ethical, [and] easy. And you have to make the data good quality.”
Evaluating “could” versus “should”
The IT leader for one of the US federal agencies is concerned with the larger implications of data. “We are sitting on enormous amounts of data. Structured [and] unstructured, and we are collecting all of it, most of it, every day. And [we have] the case management systems and the daily transactional systems that absorb [and] turn that data into information and serve it to the right person at the right time,” they explain.
“We are all focused on data and there’s still a lot of value to be found there. But I think there’s also this consideration of, ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’ Do you need the data that fast? Do you need all that data? Is that data going to make you that much more effective? Is it going to improve your decisions? Not that much more. I think we [as] technology senior managers need to be asking those challenging questions because you can collect all the data in the world and still extract no value unless [we’re] asking some of those kinds of questions.”
An electronics IT leader agrees. “Related to our IT projects, ‘could we’ and ‘should we’ are two different things. Yes, we could do that, but is it the best use of our time and are we going to get the greatest return on spending that time there…not just as it relates to data, but as it relates to just our IT work? How do you prioritize the work?”
Addressing technical debt
The investment company is looking at the balance sheet of IT investments that have rapidly become a “need to have” and not a “nice to have.” “We do have fair amount of technical debt. Some of it is just because we must kick the can down the road and it’s catching up with us. And some were just hard decisions where we spent the money and now it’s becoming critical because…of cyber issues [and] end-of-life issues [and] you don’t have a choice. You have to invest in technical debt. I bucket it into…four big chunks: people, platforms, practices, and partners, the sort of digital ecosystem,” the IT leader shares.
“This is a business problem, not a technology problem. An astute business should be taking a proactive step in knowing and understanding [the IT issues]. How is technical debt impacting us? What are the risks by having this technology debt? It’s a board issue. [I present to the board and] there’s more acceptance and a sense of ownership and accountability from the business now because they’re getting more transparency and they understand what it means to their business.”
A global background check company also faces that conflict and gets the business involved. Its IT leader explains, “I’m fighting for the same funds [and] typically on the IT side, we lose out. We get into this dynamic where we’re in board meetings and we’re trying to say, ‘I’m running on bald tires. I don’t know when that tire’s going to pop,’ and the businesses then have to make the prioritization [on product development versus IT]. And typically what happens is when something breaks, that’s when we get the attention. When something affects the customer experience, we’ll put some money toward it.”
The changing role of the workforce…and management
A defense logistics IT leader characterizes his organization’s evolution as “digital business transformation.” “We’re doing business reinvention enabled by it. We had data puddles all over the organization and really no data pools or data lakes. So we’re reorganizing around data so it can drive our analytics [and] artificial intelligence and machine learning. And that reorganization around data really means architecture, curation, and getting the right folks on board. If you’ve got data anywhere in your name, you call yourself a data scientist, [but there’s] a shortage for real data scientists,” he says.
New requests from the top also create new skills requirements, as a defense logistics agency’s IT director discovered. “[It] all starts with leadership at the top. Our director came in and had a vision of a CIO shop that operates like the movie Minority Report, where you knew something was going to happen before it actually happened. And so we discussed how we were going to get there,” they recall.
“You can’t get there with data scattered all around. If you look at data as the feedstock that really drives AI, more data is generally better [but] that does not make it better for you. You have to get your head around the data game. Until just recently, we never had a data architect. So we brought in a data architect working with our enterprise architect to come up with a strategy that helps us get there.”
Aside from data scientists, some of the leaders said soft skills are also in demand. “We are in very short supply of people who can turn technologies, products, [and] tools into solutions that have mission impact because…mission people don’t talk any tech and the tech people hate talking mission outcomes,” shares the government IT leader. “Those people who bridge that gap [are] change managers [who] drive the adoption of whatever solutions we create. The key is turning tools, services, [and] products into solutions that have mission outcome. Those translators are the most in demand and shortest in supply.”
Finding the right partner
Among the participants were varying degrees of reliance on vendors as partners, and some of the areas where they were beneficial included, “running the budget;” “helping us gather requirements and performing all the antenna work that needs to be done to bring something online;” “a partner that we can trust to help sell our success;” and providing “best practices for step one, step two, step three…to help guide you to the point where the tools will be implemented.”
They also want partners who think beyond the box. “I could have a ton of different tools, but it’s left up to us to orchestrate those…I think there’s some opportunity in the future for somebody to fill that kind of [missing] white space between [them] rapidly,” one participant pointed out.
Another added, “A lot of these product companies are coming up with new solutions. They don’t have…professional services or…expertise to work with your teams, to transfer that knowledge on how to use that solution effectively. So for us, it’s how do we get better scale in leveraging some of these really innovative technology platforms and solutions.”
As you can see, the wide-ranging discussion demonstrated a commonality of issues across private and public organizations. Specific technology skills will come and go, so the organization must decide what can be farmed out or commoditized or whether it’s intellectual property that’s worth investing in. The real testament is about finding those leaders who can bridge technology and can act as the translators between the emerging needs of the customers and productizing them into a new set of technology capabilities. Working with competitors in an innovation ecosystem and a sharing economy model can also provide an end-to-end solution to customers that truly adds value beyond what an organization can do on its own.