by Ian Cox

The good, the bad and the community – Reflections from the 2017 CIO Summit

Oct 04, 2017

Another CIO Summit has been and gone. And once again, this year’s event gave us a good mix of speakers from the public and private sectors, representing organisations ranging from financial services, health and sports to retail, charity and property.

As with previous years, in the days following the CIO Summit I have been reflecting on the main themes of the day and comparing them with my own experiences from working with and advising CIOs. And, as is typically the case when reviewing such events, there are some positive points and one or two potentially worrying issues.

[See also: 2017 CIO Summit in pictures]

The good

One of the recurring themes of the event was the growing role – and influence – of the CIO. Every one of the speakers illustrated how they were moving beyond technology to help shape their organisations in some way. This has been something I have been encouraging CIOs to do for a number of years now; digital business has changed the role of technology across every type of organisation and this creates new opportunities for IT leaders to demonstrate their business leadership credentials.

IT leaders that have already grasped this opportunity are helping to shape the overall direction of their organisations. They are influencing the products and services their organisations provide and in doing so are directly contributing to the bottom line or helping to improve outcomes for patients and residents. On the other hand, CIOs who focus purely on the technology and who are either unable or unwilling to step outside of their IT comfort zones will struggle to stay relevant, and possibly even employed, in the future.

So it was great to hear speakers such as Hywel Sloman and Graeme Hackland talk about how they were using technology to improve team performance and increase fan engagement at Arsenal FC and Williams F1, respectively. Norma Dove-Edwin from Places for People shared her strategy for leveraging the vast amounts of data her company holds within its systems to create insights about markets, services and customers and to enable better decisions across the business.

Tim Price, CTO at N Brown Group, explained how he was leading his company’s digital innovation efforts, working with startups to address key business problems and developing mobile apps that have contributed to customers increasing how much they spend with retailer. And the day was started by Laura Dawson, from the British Council, who talked about the importance of taking the customer perspective when designing digital solutions.

These are all excellent examples of the way in which the CIO role has evolved as a result of digital business. And through these examples, the speakers demonstrated how they were becoming business and IT leaders.

The bad

However, among all the good examples of CIOs broadening their influence beyond IT and helping to shape their organisations in the digital world, there was one worrying subject that cropped up on a number of occasions. The relationship between IT and the rest of the business is key to success in the digital world. In a research project I recently completed about IT operating models, it became clear that organisations that are succeeding in digital business are doing so as a result of developing very close and collaborative relationships between IT and other teams, functions and business units. Typically, this involved establishing cross-functional, multi-disciplined and co-located teams with shared objectives and accountability. This is a much more integrated and far reaching model than has traditionally been adopted.

So it was worrying to hear a number of references to introducing or improving “business partnering”, or the need to work more closely with “the business”. And there were even a few uses of the phrase “IT and the business”, which is a particular pet hate of mine. IT is part of the business. IT always has been part of the business. Indeed, in the digital age, IT is becoming the business for many organisations.

The fact that IT leaders are aware of the importance of working with other areas of the business is of course a good thing. But this is not a recent development. It is the basics of running an effective IT department. And, if CIOs really want to play a leading role in their organisation’s digital future then they have to move beyond “partnering” to the fully integrated model adopted by the digital leaders.

The need to improve IT’s relationships with the rest of the business may be a reflection of the type of IT function that CIOs inherit when they start a new role. Or it may be indicative of how the rest of the organisation thinks about technology and hence treats its IT department. But, if these organisations are to be successful in the digital world, they need to move beyond partnering to a more mature model for delivering technology-enabled solutions. And IT leaders have a key role to play in making this change happen.

The community

The willingness of both speakers and members of the audience to share insights, ideas, advice, successes and challenges all with an equal mix of candour and humility, was evident throughout the day. And this, ultimately, is what makes events like the CIO Summit worth attending.

IT leaders face many challenges and while the context and details may differ between sectors, industries and organisations, the underlying issues are often the same. CIOs can learn a lot by sharing and comparing experiences with their peers. The “power of the crowd” was mentioned by at least two speakers during the day. This also applies to the CIO community and its ability to learn and grow, by working together.

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