by Diana Bersohn

CIOs who foster a culture of equality empower innovation

May 06, 2019
CareersCIOIT Leadership

When you have a culture of equality, employees feel valued and are more willing and able to innovate. Achieving that in IT comes from the CIO setting the right tone.

Define your organization's culture
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Today’s world is characterized by constant change stemming from widespread business disruption, which is caused in large part by emerging technologies. To be competitive in such a world, companies must adopt an agile, innovation mindset to identify and invest in new markets, experiences, products and services for growth — and do so nimbly and react quickly to continually changing market dynamics.

What does it take to create that innovation mindset? It turns out a culture of equality, or a workplace environment that equally helps everyone advance to higher positions, is the key.

CIOs have always played a significant role in determining how innovative their company is. Their visibility across the business — from R&D, to marketing, operations, sales and distribution — uniquely positions them to be true champions of innovation. The CIOs who are relentlessly innovative are building distinctive services at the enterprise level and increasing agility by simplifying IT architecture, operating models and work processes. Further, they’re leading by example by becoming digital transformation leaders.

Now CIOs need to take the next step by helping to create a culture of equality – both within the IT department, as well as across the organization – to further foster innovation and growth.

New research from Accenture shows that a culture of equality has the power to drive employees’ willingness and ability to innovate. (Note: I am employee at Accenture.) It has more impact than age or gender and leads to an increase in innovation in all industries and all countries. When you boil that down, it means that if people feel a sense of belonging and are valued by their employers for their unique contributions, perspectives and circumstances, they are empowered to innovate more. Therefore, it’s critical that CIOs create an inclusive environment.

Accenture research shows that nearly everyone across every organization wants — and needs — to innovate. Ninety-five percent of business leaders see innovation as vital to competitiveness and business viability, and 91% of employees want to be innovative. But while 76% of leaders say they regularly empower employees to be innovative, only 42% of employees agree. It seems leaders mistakenly believe they’re encouraging innovation more than they actually do. For instance, they overestimate financial rewards (which are still important) and underestimate purpose as a motivator to innovate.

A culture of equality: 3 pillars

How can CIOs contribute to building this culture of equality among their own teams and across their organizations? First, they have to understand what a culture of equality is composed of. It’s anchored by three pillars:

  • An empowering environment – one that trusts employees, respects individuals and offers freedom to be creative and to train and work flexibly; this includes creating an inclusive environment where people feel their contributions and diverse perspectives are valued
  • Bold leadership– a diverse leadership team that sets, shares, and measures equality targets openly
  • Comprehensive action– policies and practices that are family-friendly, support all genders, and are biasfree in attracting and retaining people

The CIO’s role in creating an empowering environment

Accenture research shows that of those three pillars, an “empowering environment” is by far the most important when it comes to enabling innovation. Within that pillar, there are specific actions CIOs can help take to make the biggest impact.

  • Communicate the organization’s purpose.Ensure that your employees know the purpose of the organization and how their work aligns with it. Establish a customer and service-oriented mindset, which will help crystallize the sense of purpose for the individuals.
  • Commit to offering a flexible working environment. Virtual work environments and collaboration technologies are enabling people to have more say over where and how they work. The leadership team, including CIOs, can set a positive example around work-life balance.
  • Encourage inclusion in every way. Employees should feel like they can bring their authentic selves to work every day. That means not asking them to conform when it comes to appearance. It also means encouraging them to collaborate through internal and external networks to increase diversity of thought. It means encouraging them to try new ideas, experiment with new technologies, and embrace a “fail fast” mindset.
  • Focus on the business value of technology.As the role of technologists transforms to be more oriented around identifying business needs, designing solutions, and procuring and assembling services to meet those needs, the IT staff should be able to articulate the value of the technology solutions they are delivering or supporting. This elevates the role of the product owner or project manager to conversing with the business about the value of the solution they bring, which helps promote that empowering environment.
  • Train effectively.Transform your workforce, and offer employees engaging and flexible training programs so that they have the skills they need for the future. Also, use temporary assignments, work rotations between business and IT, and horizontal career moves to help employees grow their skills and share knowledge across the company.

Creating a culture of equality has never been more important for driving innovation and competitive agility. Consider this – even having employees with an advanced degree or who have studied a STEM subject at college has a less-powerful impact on workers’ willingness and ability to innovate than culture factors do. When people feel valued and a sense of belonging, they are more likely to advance and feel empowered to think outside of the box.

And the role for CIOs and leadership teams is clear – by setting the right tone from the top, together they can unlock this unprecedented opportunity.