Contributing writer

The small business CIO with big lessons for enterprise IT chiefs

Jul 26, 20229 mins
IT Leadership

Devoted to helping smaller outfits find their digital mojo, CIO Fabienne Wintle shares the importance of understanding the entire business whether you work for a small business or a large enterprise.

Fabienne Wintle CIO of Tourism Tribe
Credit: Fabienne Wintle

Small and medium business’ CIOs have much to teach larger enterprises, according to Fabienne Wintle, CIO of Navii, the Australian government-backed platform that supports small and medium businesses going digital.

Wintle, who is also the CIO of Tourism Tribe, had an interest in connecting businesses with information through technology, and tells CIO Australia she always saw technology as being about how to organise information and make it useful for business.

A career related to tourism was a natural progression as she grew up in the holiday paradise of the Swiss Alps, but so was her enthusiasm about IT and its applications. These two combined saw her find her passion in helping smaller organisations. “I really saw that there was something to be done for smaller businesses. That’s how my career has evolved, being able to find the right technology for smaller businesses,” she says.

What enterprise CIOs can learn from small business CIOs and vice versa

Smaller teams are less purely process driven and have more person-to-person exchanges and communication with the IT chief about embracing digital at every level. This helps getting each person to see there is value in thinking about how they can use their skills and knowledge of the business to improve the job they’re doing, using information better with the support of technology, Wintle says.

And when it comes to applications, small business CIOs have the opportunity to use solutions similar to those used by enterprises. But instead of simply trying to replicate an enterprise-level solution, small businesses have to find ways of retaining and adapting existing tools and looking for add-ons. Wintle tells of an instance when using project management tools, such as the Trello platform but wanting additional functionality. “The option as a small business is Jira, which is a full-blown system that would mean losing Trello, which mightn’t work for the team. If you just need a Gantt chart view of the Trello board, look for that solution, which is an overlay on the Trello board.”

And one way to help smalls business CIOs to understand how to use enterprise solutions in their environment and get acquainted with the existing options it is to attend events that are suited to larger organisations so “they can get their brain flowing and see that with technology anything’s available to any size business nowadays” Wintle says. “Thinking about how to translate tools to work for smaller businesses and being hands on is something I would advise CIOs,” she says.

For enterprise CIOs, talking to their counterparts at smaller organisations gives them the opportunity to realise how involved the small and medium business CIOs are across the entire organisation’s functions and have a practical understanding of the entire operation. In her experience, CIOs in larger sized organisation may tend to plan the development of a CRM system without fully knowing how the business works, which ends up in a waste of resources.

And this is why having a hands-on approach is important, so IT chiefs need to make it part of their job to see how other jobs within the organisation are done. “Being close to teams and understanding their needs, can make it quicker and easier to see problems and gaps and come up with solutions, that may be small but powerful. Sometimes it’s just a few lines of code or a new formula for a spreadsheet. With digital, a small change can make a huge difference to a team,” she says

CIO training needs to be broad based

Wintle tells that her master’s in information systems taught her to think about information and not just technology. “Being able to relate information and see how it works, as opposed to just hard coding things and not really realising how it fits in a business environment, has been so useful,” she says.

For those who want to become a CIO, Wintle suggests they develop skills outside of those purely technical to be able to communicate better with all stakeholders across the business. This includes taking on human resources subjects while studying, if those are available. Wintle believes this helps in the long run specially when dealing with people who are reticent about changes, such as the introduction of a new system.

Fossicking for gold in the mountains of data

With many organisations awash in data, and the cyber risks that come with it, the task is making sense of what’s important.

“Data analytics is being able to find the nuggets of gold. I love data and I love systems, so I could be easily bogged down and looking at analytics for hours. But it’s really important to just keep the strategic objectives in perspective and have very simple North Star metrics to focus on and always relate the data to that,” she says.

Understanding what data is important, draws on her previous lessons of understanding the entire business and its stakeholders. Learning what type of data is required by each stakeholder and having that focus is key to making that data visual.

For instance, small businesses might have a CRM, but the data is sitting there in the CRM, it’s not being brought back to a simple Google Sheet that gets automatically updated and that the whole team can review. Working with data is finding that metric and then making it visible in a dynamic format. “It’s making or organising data in the best way, using the right tools for the team to be able to make the most of it and not losing the connection to the business as to why you’re doing this and not going off on a tangent,” she says.

The other important element is being able to show teams how to access data and make sense of the data in their work. “What has made a huge difference in our team is being able to understand how important it is to actually have the data structured in the way that we need, which is supporting the organisation’s goals,” she says.

“The goal might be to grow the business to by 20%. But what does that mean in terms of the marketing team, for instance. Do they need to send more newsletters? Is it a Facebook group, is it more PR [public relations]?” Wintle says.

Days for strategic planning, for instance, can be used to establish objectives for the next year. “So, these are these North Star measures that everything needs to sit under. Then setting the metrics and connecting the data and reporting system back to these measures,” she says.

Why digital transformation means thinking like a digital entrepreneur

When it comes to the growing demand for digital transformation, Wintle thinks in many ways CIOs have been focused on digital transformation from day dot. For her, it’s the opportunities digital brings to all levels of the business that require the CIO to step outside the tech HQ and head into the ‘ring’. “Being able to lead talent and entice them to ‘think’ like a digital entrepreneur is where the CIO’s focus should be. CIOs must be able to communicate and empower the most tech-adverse employees to embrace innovation, at all levels of the business,” she says.

This means connecting with people in engaging ways.

“Successful small businesses are those that feed digital transformation from the ground up, where everyone is thirsty to see how much more interesting and exciting their roles could be by blending smart tech into their role. The CIO’s role is to facilitate this highly human role. Not only does the CIO need to keep up with tech opportunities for their industry, they also need to boost their interpersonal skills and set up learning programs that suit their teams. Out the door with geeky, dry, bullet point-driven documentation. It’s high time to bring gamification and colourful, animated YouTube training videos,” Wintle says.

Getting the team on board and realising how important it is to think like a digital entrepreneur is both an opportunity and a challenge, especially within smaller outfits. “While the CIO role was for many years very much part of the IT team, it’s spread throughout the whole of the organisation,” she notes.

Regardless of size, in any organisation every system or process is in some way reliant on technology. Even so, Wintle believes that it can still be a challenge encouraging some leaders and teams outside of the IT area to fully embrace this concept. “It’s very important that CIOs are at the management discussion table and not perceived as the tech team down there,” she says.

If CIOs aren’t at the management discussion table, she believes this means the person above them does not understand how technology permeates throughout the organisation. In this case, they need a mentor or someone else to talk to their higher ups and even the CEO about the importance of digital.

For all organisations today the cost of doing business must account for the technology that is critical to success. It’s the expertise that needs to be the minimum requirement for a successfully functioning organisation. Yet it can create a technical debt for smaller organisations that they must address. “When I coach businesses, I’ll say: ‘You have to either become a digital entrepreneur yourself, or you’re going to need to have one on the books all the time to guide you,” she says.