by Afzal Ballim

Why you need to make 2016 the year of the customer

Feb 03, 2016
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Be a post-modern CIO, and make your organization’s customers your obsession.

Forrester Research claim that many CIOs are living in the past, with their lives focused on internal operations. According to Bobby Cameron of Forrester, in a report on digital transformation, and in an interview with TechTarget, there is a lot of immaturity still around in CIOs that can lead to career-threatening issues.

Cameron lists five such issues that threatens, according to him, the careers of as much as three quarters of CIOs in place today. The premise is that the CIO role has moved on rapidly in the last decade, and today’s CIO must focus well beyond the bread and butter of operations, yet many are not doing that.  Indeed, if we look at the list, many aren’t even succeeding well enough in the basics. Cameron gives the issues as follows (I’ve ordered them differently from him):

  1. Staying in a “technical debtor’s prison” – not moving on from old systems;
  2. Thinking small – putting on plasters to existing systems rather than having a global strategy;
  3. Not having the trust of the business, by failing to deliver end-to-end systems;
  4. Not inspiring meaningful change in the organization;
  5. Not being focused on the customer.

The last element in this list may get many CIOs spluttering. Isn’t customer focus what the last two decades have been about? Well, their “customer” and Cameron’s customer are not the same. Let’s take a moment and look at these issues in the perspective of the history of IT, and then look at where IT is going.

Classic IT – The operator

IT Operations © By NASA (Great Images in NASA Description) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The backbone of IT is operational – making sure that systems are running and are secured. Once, this could have been seen as the only duty of the CIO, to make sure the wheels keep turning. Young CIOs starting out will often still focus on this, and that is not a bad thing because ensuring that systems are reliable and secure, and looking at efficiency and cost-effectiveness are the essentials of being a CIO even today. They are, as people have been saying for a long time, the table stakes of being a CIO.

Making mistakes in this backbone of the CIO role will almost certainly put an end to your job, and you ignore legacy systems are your risk. If done correctly, the operational aspect of your CIO role will help to keep you in your job, but beware the first, second, and third items on Cameron’s list. Operations have to evolve over time to meet the changing demands of the enterprise, and if that change doesn’t go beyond upgrades and meaningful migrations, then you won’t have a foot in the door of the executive committee and you won’t have the ability to influence the evolution of even the IT organization.

Modern IT – The company in a company

the company in a company (c) Afzal Ballim

Worrying about the first three issues of Cameron’s list is what gave rise to what I like to call Modern IT, and this is where some CIOs will be confused by claims that they are not “customer focused.” These days most middle to large IT organizations are built using models such as ITIL, which are service models devised around the idea that IT is a service to customers, and IT only exists to provide service to those customers.

Treating the users of the IT systems as customers gave rise to the vision of IT as a company within the company, and outsourcing and off-shoring have been major contributors to that view. If the rest of the business are customers to an IT organization, then why do we need to keep it in-house? Why can’t we treat it as a commodity and buy it in?

This happens if you’re not paying attention to items three and four of Cameron’s list. The IT organization is not bringing business value to the enterprise beyond the services that it is offering. The CIO will not be a true member of the executive committee (presuming the CIO is on the executive committee in the first place), and won’t have an opportunity to bring meaningful change to the enterprise.

Post-Modern IT – The catalyst for business innovation

briansolls Brian Solis

Hence the birth of today’s IT. Let’s call it the Post-Modern IT. The CIO and the IT organization does not only ensure day-to-day operations, nor provide services to its business customers (the rest of the enterprise), but is focused on bringing about digital transformation. In this world the focus is on the customer of the business, and not the customer of IT. You must “become a customer-obsessed CIO leader who drives growth by embracing change,” as Cameron said in an article for CIO UK.

It is no easy task, today, to find a top class traditional CIO, but it’s even harder to find post-modern CIOs who understand digital, and that’s what headhunters are being hired to find.  These CIOs are digital leaders, bringing their companies forward hand-in-hand with marketing to better reach out to the company’s customers. Here is where we are paying attention to item five of Cameron’s list.

The question, though, is where do we go next? We are already seeing the rise of the Chief Digital Officer, someone who’s role is to tie all things digital together. Surely, that’s the CIO’s job? Why do we need a new role? Is it because many, more traditional, CIOs are failing to make the post-modern step? Is the CIO role stretched to the breaking point?

I believe that as we move forward we need CIOs who can master the three faces of IT – Classical, Modern, and Post-Modern. They need to be able to ensure that everything runs well, that internal customers are happy, and very importantly, they must master the digital transformation of the enterprise and bring meaningful change to the enterprise. The new CIO must be a catalyst for business innovation.

In my next article I’ll start looking at how you can go begin to go about bringing such change to your organization, and how you can start to make 2016 the year of the customer.