CIOs long ago shed their perception as order-taking technologists to those with a seat at the executive table, a badge of honor that underscores their arrival as trusted business partners. But to retain this elevated status in an era when businesses are increasingly leaning into digital capabilities, today\u2019s IT leaders must now co-create new products and services for customers.\nThat may sound daunting for CIOs, many of whom are modernizing IT systems and spearheading digital transformations. But consider that CIOs are best positioned among their C-suite peers to co-create with business partners. Design thinking, agile practices, an increasing emphasis on learning about customers\u2019 needs \u2014 IT leaders are uniquely steeped in what drives business strategy.\n[ Learn from your peers: Check out our State of the CIO 2019 report on the challenges and concerns of CIOs today. | Find out the 7 skills of successful digital leaders and the secrets of highly innovative CIOs. | Get weekly insights by signing up for our CIO Leader newsletter. ]\nWhile many consider this phenomenon IT-business alignment, co-evolution may be a better metaphor. Borrowed from biology, co-evolution encompasses organic synergies among IT and business, as well as with partners and the broader ecosystems at work in a sector, said Joe Peppard, principal research scientist of MIT\u2019s Sloan Center for Information Systems Research, at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., in May.\n\u201cIn the past, business defined how to solve a problem and looked to IT to solve it,\u201d said Belkis Vasquez-McCall, a partner at McKinsey Digital, at the Symposium. \u201cNow IT executives are co-defining the problem and leading the evolution around defining a solution. We have to come together to participate in the new economy.\u201d\nCo-evolution morphs into co-creation, cementing the role of IT leadership as critical, agreed CIOs participating in an array of strategy-oriented panels at the Symposium.\nReaching across the aisle\nAt Mercer, a Marsh & McLennan subsidiary that provides technology and advisory services for health, wealth and career professionals, IT staffers are empowered to take initiative. For instance, one tech lead alerted Chief Digital Officer Gail Evans to the fact that a certain data connector, properly applied, could save the company $800,000. Evans, who revamped Mercer\u2019s operating model around open source technology, APIs and microservices, has appointed staffers to serve as business relationship managers (BREs) \u2014 liaisons between IT and the business.\nMercer, which conducts monthly portfolio reviews and pores over KPIs to refine strategy, also created a \u201cdigital playbook.\u201d One fruit of its digital initiatives includes Warren, a virtual assistant that Mercer consultants can query for facts about their clients. Ultimately, Evans said that all of her work is geared toward serving clients, solving stakeholder problems, and driving revenue and profitability.\n\u201cWe can\u2019t do tech drive-bys,\u201d said Evans, adding that 23,000 employees rely on leadership to grow the company. \u201cWe must be a bit ahead of our business partners. The worse place you can be is your business wants to go to digital and you are just starting."\nEvans emphasizes cultivating knowledge about the business objective and learning about client and customer needs from the outside in. While tech expertise is table stakes, co-creators must also be aware of what the competition is doing, quickly assess market opportunities and threats and figure out how to disrupt \u2014 or risk being disrupted. A good co-creator defines what it means to win while inspiring colleagues to get ready for change.\n"Tech will change often and you have to keep your skill, but I am most proud about how colleagues have embraced changes, asked questions, and behaved differently," Evans says.\nCo-locating to co-create\nDick\u2019s Sporting Goods CTO Paul Gaffney and his business peers co-create solutions that strengthen connections between the retail chain\u2019s store associates and customers. To do this, Gaffney co-locates IT and business leaders for agile development and product management, leveraging design thinking to create services employees and customers will enjoy.\n\u201cWhen they\u2019re all together in the same place, that yields the highest probability of the best results,\u201d Gaffney said. For feedback, Dick\u2019s also got store associates and customers in a room to test new solutions.\nSometimes creating those solutions invites tension between IT and the business, but resolving conflicts is essential for serving the customer. Moreover, \u201cinflicting\u201d poor solutions on associates impacts their ability to make the customer happy, Gaffney said at the MIT event.\n\u201cYou can't expect them to deliver happiness if we give them tools they hate,\u201d Gaffney said. \u201cIf anything we do is not in service of front-line humans, it prevents us from being future-ready.\u201d\nFor others embarking on a co-creation journey, Gaffney recommends checking your ego at the door.\n\u201cA leadership team is most effective when they are less concerned about being right,\u201d Gaffney said. It\u2019s also critical for IT leaders to be able to change the language they use depending on whom they are talking to. For example, a CIO or CTO might need to alter the way they explain \u201cthis is what it could be, or here are the mechanism to do this\u201d depending on whether they are speaking to a CEO, CFO or COO.\nAnd keep programming and learning. Every six months Gaffney devotes a few days to building new software. \u201cIf I don't do it, I would lose touch with exponential change,\u201d Gaffney says.\nCo-creation with partner organizations\nCo-creation with the business isn\u2019t happening within bubble of an MIT conference. One high-profile co-creation example emerged out of Mastercard earlier this year, when the company partnered with Apple and Goldman Sachs on Apple Card, a digital credit card built into the Apple Wallet on the iPhone, Jorn Lambert, executive vice president of digital solutions, told CIO.com in a May interview. Consumers can register for Apple Card directly on the device without filling out paperwork.\nTo launch such a service, Mastercard relies on a device, an OS, an application, a browser and several other components whose core competency lies with Apple. Apple meanwhile doesn\u2019t operate a global payments network at scale, which is Mastercard\u2019s bailiwick.\nLambert says the effort, which includes critical API connections between the three partners\u2019 platforms, reflects Mastercard\u2019s willingness to partner with companies to create the best products.\n\u201cCo-creation with the right partners to set a new standard or benchmark is crucial,\u201d Lambert says. \u201cWe need to make sure to recognize trends, lean into them and make the right choices.\nKeeping ahead of the curve\nFunneling data to a single source of truth, ostensibly to cultivate better business insights, is another common co-creation initiative.\nAt Pure Storage, CIO Cathy Southwick is working with her business constituents on a unified data platform. Pure business units historically operated their own IT services, racked up several data siloes in the process. Southwick, who had experiences streamlining processes in her more than 22 years in various IT leadership roles at AT&T, is securing commitments to generate a standard way of looking at data.\nSouthwick aims to \u201cbring some of [operational] discipline,\u201d which she says will help Pure Storage see what's coming around the corner and predict business trends, as well as future opportunities for growth. \u201cCo-creation is important,\u201d Southwick says. \u201cUntil IT has that relationship with the business, the question of relevancy is always a factor.\u201d\nThe bottom line\nWhile IT leaders are pursuing initiatives with the best of intentions, they also recognize that bureaucracy has a habit of stifling progress.\nOr as George Westerman, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, noted at the Symposium, \u201cAs fast as technology changes, IT organizations change much more slowly.\u201d\n\nMore on the CIO role today:\n\n Wanted: CIOs to master digital strategy at the vanguard of change \n How CIOs can last longer than 4.3 years \n The case against the 'business-minded CIO \n CIO resumes: 6 best practices and 4 strong examples \n New CIO? 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