CIO Upfront: Breakthrough or middle ground?

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The role identity of the modern CIO is not straightforward. It can be many things depending on the transformational path of the organisation. This helps explain the broad mix of personalities and orientations of the profession. Some CIOs are boxed in as technologists: others see themselves as sociologists. But there are two facts that don’t change: the domain of managed IT is 'owned' by the CIO and is home to a broad range of approaches to what IT ‘is’.

The CIO (or CTO or CDO or whichever title is favoured) is the primary change agent of the senior leadership team. Because it is the central task of the CIO to manage the social era challenge to the mass production era business structure. This challenge primarily comes in the form of various species of SaaS.

It takes significant courage to commit yourself wholeheartedly to an uncertain future. This, by the way, is why we have senior leadership teams in the first place.Rohan Light, Decisv

The complications sequent to a widespread adoption of these applications is the subject of a paper (Shadow IT and Consumerization Complicate a Crowded Enterprise Collaboration Market) by Brian Riggs, Principal Enterprise Analyst for Ovum:

“…an increasing number of communications applications that were initially designed for consumer use now have business-grade versions or have been added to suites of business applications. As a result, they are no longer simply consumer applications, but viable business applications that may or may not conform to IT policies and may or may not be formally embraced by IT.”

Consumer grade applications mix together with business grade products using a similar deployment model as well as established local applications upgrading to provide enterprise level capability. Riggs focuses on the communication and collaboration domain of digital tools in his paper and identifies the central problem driving the increasingly large proportion of enterprise technology that sits outside of managed IT:

“… end users having difficulty with company-provided conferencing tools tend to turn to consumer-grade alternatives”

In other words, what is supported by the formal technology stack is of decreasing use to employees. No one likes to be on the end of a losing fight and Riggs offers three approaches to CIOs contemplating the best response to consumerisation:

  • Work with consultant and professional services organisations to advise enterprises on best practices.
  • Partner with third parties to provide IT-friendly alternatives to the communications and collaboration applications entering the enterprise.
  • Deliver IT-friendly alternatives to the communications and collaboration applications entering the enterprise.

Riggs uses the term ‘shadow IT’ to identify the consumer grade applications being used across the enterprise. He defines shadow IT as:

“… technology used inside businesses without the knowledge or explicit approval of the IT Department”

Language is important. Because these applications are entering the enterprise in increasingly large numbers, and in user response to underperforming or absent managed IT capability, 'shadow' is probably inaccurate. Other analysts use words such as ‘business-led IT’ or ‘shallow IT’. From the enterprise perspective, it is important to make the effort to bring the entire work community together. Because the widespread use of non-managed IT applications is evidence of a much wider problem.

Next: The heart of the problem for senior leaders navigating change

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This problem is most visible in the communication and collaboration domain, hence Riggs’ study. His perspective is further developed in a paper (Re-platform the Knowledge Worker or They Will Do It Themselves) by Richard Edwards, Principal Research Analyst Enterprise Productivity and Mobility for Ovum:

“The power and capabilities of new end-user computing devices, the applications they run, and the services they connect to continue to increase the digital transformation potential of business information and communication technologies. As these technologies transition into the mainstream, CIOs and IT departments are engaging with their business colleagues to rethink the notion of the digital workspace, and with it the physical workplace too.”

In other words, consumerisation and business-led IT is changing the fundamental identity of the organisation from the inside. This goes to the heart of the problem for senior leaders navigating change. A business will appear to be a certain type on the outside but on the inside it is becoming something else again.

At face value this might appear to be a simple case of business evolution. It is a good thing that organisations move with the times and with the changing nature of the workforce. The serious issue at hand has become one of basic organisational health and hygiene. As we discovered in the medieval period, cities bring both opportunities and problems and the modern organisation can be analysed as if it were a city.

Edwards agrees with Riggs when he writes:

“The liberalization of corporate IT, whereby employees are able to use any sanctioned device to access corporate applications and data, might have produced beneficial changes in employee engagement and productivity, but it has also refocused attention on information security management and associated governance, risk, and compliance issues”

In the modern era, governance, risk and compliance (GRC) are critical challenges that require a considered response. It is a bitter reality for the CIO that when technology fails, business users are quick to complain. When confronted with problems integrating consumer grade technology into the managed IT stack, it is little wonder that the conventional response is to ban unsanctioned applications. While it is a rational response, it does little to address the problem.

A business will appear to be a certain type on the outside but on the inside it is becoming something else again.Rohan Light, Decisv


CIO’s cannot address the situation with a simplistic policy. After all, this technology is part of what digital transformation is actually about. For Edwards, the general approach to this challenge is clear:

“Enterprises should assess the extent to which consumer-oriented communication and collaboration tools are being used across the business, and then find ways to flip these into the managed IT environment.”

This is the functional challenge for the CIO. There will be a tendency, as always when navigating digital transformation, to take a middle approach. In decision terms, an approach of half measures demonstrates an unwillingness to fully grasp the nettle. This is not something confined to business leaders, it’s a tendency that’s hardwired into most of us.

It takes significant courage to commit yourself wholeheartedly to an uncertain future. This, by the way, is why we have senior leadership teams in the first place. Organisations are decision-making machines that pass increasingly hard problems up the chain. These decisions tend to get re-framed as risk, which stimulates both our prevalence to risk aversion and our tendency to gamble when things look bad. The prevalence of "worse than useless" (L.A Cox, What’s Wrong With Risk Matrices?, Risk Analysis 28(2), 2008) soft-scoring risk management methods indicates how much we dislike uncertainty (and how little we understand modern probabilistic methods of risk management).

Taking a middle ground approach to the challenge of consumerisation may do little in terms of dealing with the problem. Steven Sinofsky wrote about this on LinkedIn (‘Continuous Productivity' and the Next Generation of Work and Tools For Work):

“Businesses that believe people will gradually move from yesterday’s modalities of work to these new ways will be surprised to learn that people are already working in these new ways. Technologists seeking solutions that ‘combine the best of both worlds’ or ‘technology bridge’ solutions will only find themselves comfortably dipping their toe in the water further solidifying an old approach while competitors race past them. The nature of disruptive technologies is the relentless all or nothing that they impose as they charge forward.”

Busy CIOs managing the shift of managed IT assets to opex, the troubled evolution of the modern IT support professional and the impact of consumerisation are haunted by the imperatives of making such all or nothing decisions. It’s tough going, and Sinofsky agrees with Riggs on a primary cause:

“The list of devices and services routinely used by workers at every level is endless. The reality appears to be that for many employees the number of hours of usage in front of approved enterprise apps on managed enterprise devices is on the decline”

The installed base of managed IT applications aren’t meeting the needs of modern professionals. These professionals are working in a variety of environments and using a variety of platforms. Trying to keep up with the change, let alone model it, is becoming a losing battle for the CIO. Remember that this change in working habits is contributing directly to GRC issues at the enterprise level and there can be extremely serious consequences to getting this badly wrong.

This is why the response from CIO’s needs to be behavioural, rather than technological or by cluttering desks with endless risk registers. It’s about people, not technology platforms. And it's this word ‘platform' that helps identify what is happening in systemic terms. In the modern organisation a platform means much more than a technology asset. John Hagel writes about this on his blog (Platforms Are Not Created Equal: Harnessing the Full Power of Platforms) following his attendance of an MIT Media Labs Platform Strategy Summit:

“… platforms… cover a broad range of institutional arrangements. It was clear that they didn't simply view platforms as technology platforms. In fact, the definition they offer of business platforms is: “a nexus of rules and infrastructure that facilitate interactions among network users” or, alternatively, “a published standard, together with a governance model, that facilitates third party participation"”

Hagel goes on to introduce several different types of platform: the one most relevant to the issue of the obsolete managed IT technology stack is the ‘mobilisation’ platform.

“Mobilisation platforms ultimately focus on mobilising participants to engage in some kind of collaborative effort that will take considerable time to accomplish… they are ultimately focused on moving people to act together to accomplish something beyond the capabilities of any individual participant”

This reframes the CIO challenge from a tool and asset based problem to a human and social one. Organisations are a collection of mobilisation platforms that shape people’s energy to achieve things individuals cannot.

What is occurring in the domain of enterprise IT is that people are bringing new mobilisation platforms into operation. This is rational on their part: they are seeking to enact the purpose of the organisation. It is positive value seeking behaviour and exactly the sort of thing senior leaders want to see.

This behaviour doesn’t go unnoticed by progressive leaders seeking to get ahead of the all-or-nothing challenge, as Edwards notes:

“The power and capabilities of new end-user computing devices, the applications they run, and the services they connect to continue to increase the digital transformation potential of business information and communication technologies. As these technologies transition into the mainstream, CIOs and IT departments are engaging with their business colleagues to rethink the notion of the digital workspace, and with it the physical workplace too.”

This opportunity to increase the digital transformation potential is why the CIO has the opportunity to be the most significant change agent within the senior leadership team.

As people within the organisation are changing the nature of the workplace by changing the mobilisation platforms, the CIO works to bring these new platforms into the managed IT stack. Some will remain on the penumbra for a while and others may never make it in: not all applications last the distance, which is why we are seeing Facebook develop business applications and not Myspace.

The inability of some mobilisation platforms to earn a place in the managed IT stack is not just because one business group likes it while others don’t. It’s about whether the platform managed to qualitatively transform itself into a special type of platform, as Hagel points out:

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