by Clint Boulton

CIO finds storytelling challenging but crucial

May 09, 2017
Business IT AlignmentCIOIT Leadership

AstraZeneca’s CIO grapples with narrative constructs to explain technology concepts to business executives at the pharmaceutical company.

storytelling primary
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Dave Smoley recently wrapped up a three-year digital transformation. While most CIOs might be popping the cork on a bottle of champagne, the AstraZeneca IT leader has turned his focus to growth and innovation. Smoley is educating executives on disruptive technologies that may generate more revenues and efficiencies for the U.K.-based pharmaceutical company.

AstraZeneca’s CIO Dave Smoley. AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca’s CIO Dave Smoley.

The trick to communicating information about emerging technologies lies in crafting a narrative that connects how the tools– including anything from machine learning technologies to social collaboration software to digital therapeutics — support the company’s mission to create life-saving drugs for cancer and other diseases. “You have to connect the dots and translate it into a compelling story that various people who meet with the CEO can share and get people excited about [the tools],” Smoley says.

Storytelling is an increasingly effective go-to tactic for companies seeking to cultivate innovation. Lowe’s Innovation Labs practices perhaps the most extreme example of this, creating narratives in comic books that portray retail robots, ad-hoc tool-making in space and holographic interior design.

Talking tech to business folks

AstraZeneca isn’t going as far as Lowe’s, but Smoley’s challenges are no less daunting as he must coax business leaders for a company steeped in hard science to invest in new types of information technology. Each month, Smoley and members of his innovation team, which exists largely in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, U.K., spend an hour briefing members of the executive team on emerging technologies. They explain to the business leaders what the tools are, what other people are doing with them and what AstraZeneca is doing — or plans to do with the tools — via pilots.

This year, Smoley’s staff has briefed the executives on potential applications for artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize drug discovery, as well as manufacturing, sales, patient engagement and diagnostics. For example, AstraZeneca is piloting machine learning software from startup DataRobot to analyze real-world data on drugs to determine if there are any adverse events that suggest safety issues.

Members of Smoley’s team have also given presentations on high-performance computing, including quantum computing to improve operations, as well as data analytics and visualization to help improve patient care and to glean new insights about opportunities. The presentations are crucial, Smoley says, because they afford his team the opportunity to convince the business about why what they’re working on is important. “A lot of projects can get buried or lost if the business isn’t linked to them,” Smoley says. “We can be hub of the wheel and the enabler.”

Creating alignment between IT and the business has been a goal for CIOs since they began viewing themselves more as business partners than tech dudes connecting cables in data centers. But getting business buy-in to innovation — a path more littered with the bones of failed projects than the riches of success — can be a tough sell. And Smoley says it’s tough to find the right balance of technical explanations with narrative building to convince the business that potential initiative is worthwhile.

Crafting a narrative presents its own chicken-and-egg challenge. “A lot of really good technologists can’t communicate worth a hoot or put a presentation together to save their lives, so you end up in this challenging spot where you might have the right story but you can’t tell it well,” Smoley says. “Or you’ve got no story but great technology information and you have to sort through all of that to get it right.”

Moreover, Smoley finds himself explaining how the tools fit into the context of AstraZeneca’s business to people who have varying degrees of understanding about technology. His audience includes AstraZeneca’s CFO, head of HR and the executive vice president of discovery science. “It’s a highly federated company so you have to bring it together in a way that gets people to get their head around it and decide priorities going forward,” says Smoley, who adds that partnering with innovative vendors is crucial in helping to weave the story together and present it to business leaders.

In May, Smoley’s team is presenting on social collaboration technologies such as Facebook at Work and Slack as potential alternatives to software from That application, Chatter, works fine for CRM (customer relationship management) scenarios but is untenable for other business functions, he says. Staff briefings for the remainder of 2017 will cover genomics, next-generation user interfaces, internet of things and wearable computers, digital therapeutics and mobile health, cybersecurity and blockchain and automation, robots and chatbots.

Innovation crapshoot

Smoley enjoys the work but acknowledges trying to engage with this business over disruptive technologies presents a different challenge. Normal IT tends to be programmatic and linear, whereas innovation is something of an awkward crapshoot. “It requires a totally different skill set than the typical IT shop because a lot of what you’re doing is your consulting and gathering information both in and outside the company in a short period of time,” Smoley says

Smoley knows somethings about traditional IT, having just completed a sweeping transformation he initiated in 2013 to bolster IT while cutting IT costs in half. Smoley flipped the model from 70 percent outsourced and 30 percent insourced, and retired some legacy applications in favor of cloud software from Box,, Workday, Microsoft (Office 365) and ServiceNow. In the next leg of this journey, AstraZeneca is leveraging computational horsepower from Amazon Web Services to crunch large data sets, part of a major genetics push. Smoley is also building a mobile software platform to automate and tailor paper-based business processes for smartphone and tablets.

Regardless of the project type, Smoley says entrepreneurial behavior remains a core value and something that will help drive competitive advantage for AstraZeneca. “Within IT we talk about entrepreneurial behavior and technology leadership and that comes alive in how you pick projects, staff and run them,” Smoley says.