CIO upfront: CEOs should stop saying this about tech

'Of course, the technology is the easy bit...'

It’s one of those trite phrases that gets picked up and repeated in everydaycorporate life, as if they were statements of obvious truth and wisdom, upon which we all agree. Perhaps there was a time, over a decade ago, when this one seemed to make some kind of sense. Today I think it is dangerously counterproductive.

This unhelpful phrase may end up causing a CEO’s own leadership capability and judgement to be questioned by investors – particularly as the digital giants invade more industriesMark Raskino, Gartner

There are five key reasons why this is an unhelpful thing to say.

First, it’s a sweeping generalisation: At a strategic level there may be some technologies that are relatively well known, well practiced and easy to apply. There are many that are not. By waving a big hand across all technology, the CEO risks showing ignorance of the realities of the digital age, through which he or she must navigate the firm. What do you mean by technology? Is it the user experience design? the data science? the algorithm creation? the IoT cloud connected system architecture? the cyber-security? the neural network based AI?

Second, it’s elusively comparative. If the the technology is the easy bithellip; then what exactly is the “the hard” bit? Is it the hellip; legal? the sales? the marketing? the strategy? the HR? the finance? We can all respect the complexities of other aspects of a business operating model – but it’s not obvious why the technology part is inherently easier.

Third, its a self-fulfilling delusion. If as a CEO, you are finding that the technology is the easy bit, that’s very likely because your company isn’t stretching itself into newer and more innovative technology territory. In today’s world, creative application of digital and information technology to differentiate customer value propositions – products, services and brands – is vital in competing for markets.

Fourth, it’s demeaning to talent. In the years ahead, you want the best techies you can get, working on your products, services and business models. Sounding off that “the technology is the easy bit” may win a wry smile from some of your battle scarred commercial general managers – but there’s a price. Talented technical people will not be attracted towards corporate leaders who trivialize what they do.

Finally, use of this unhelpful phrase may end up causing a CEO’s own leadership capability and judgement to be questioned by investors – particularly as the digital giants invade more industries. For example if a retail CEO says it – then then how can we explain Jeff Bezos’s success at stealing market share in retail? Either Bezos is the better retail commercial thinkerhellip; if “the technology is the easy bit”hellip; or the traditional retailer isn’t able execute “the easy bit”. Neither of those conclusions is a good one.

Leaders have followers. Whatever the CEO says out loud, his or her senior leaders are likely to parrot to their management teams. That’s how a seemingly unimportant technology-dismissive remark, can generate cultural reinforcement that becomes organisationally paralysing.

Mark Raskino is a fellow in Gartner’s CEO and Digital Business Leadership research team. He covers business and technology trends and their implications for business strategy, innovation, business models, leadership and executive relationships. He co-authored the books Digital to the Core (Gartner, 2015) and Mastering the Hype Cycle(Harvard Business Press, 2008).

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