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What they don’t teach you at CIO school

What they don’t teach you at CIO school

And why you should think differently about innovation

An MBA graduate recently told me that most of the frameworks and theories he learnt during the course he had already forgotten.

It made me reflect on what I had learnt on the job at 'CIO school' so to speak. Indeed, the diversity of backgrounds of CIOs actually means that there are significant differences in our respective DNA.

Some of us have come through the ranks of IT; some of us started as junior tech workers and moved into senior technology management positions. Others were business people who moved into CIO roles.

Most of us have evolved with the ever-increasing demands of our businesses. But unless we learn how to innovate fast, we risk becoming an endangered species.

I recently presented a keynote about how to be an innovative CIO, someone who is flexible enough to deliver technology that the business needs much more quickly than in the past.

But what does it actually mean to be an innovative CIO? In its MIS Quarterly in March 2011, the University of Minnesota identified five kinds of CIOs.

They are:

  • Utility IT director
  • Evangelist CIO
  • Innovative CIO
  • Facilitator CIO
  • Agility IT director/CIO

Click here to see a comparison of these CIO roles.

The model presented a logical comparison of the relative scope of these roles, detailing what issues are critical to success – including performance metrics, challenges, and which other c-level executives these CIOs have relationships with.

The scope of each CIO’s role may not be as clear-cut as made out in this framework, but when we examine how success is determined for an innovative CIO, it is a tough measure.

It is all about delivering meaningful business innovation and value from those initiatives. The ultimate measures therefore are the requests for ‘additional service’ and ‘active governance of IT’ at board level.

So we now have a yard stick to assess CIOs as being ‘innovative.’ If we take it that most of us are striving to meet this measure, then how can we get there?

We have to always focus on our strengths and build on those, and it is always important to identify concrete steps that will help facilitate our personal development.

Around 15 years ago I wanted to broaden my thinking to contribute more to the business. I had completed my MBA, and I thought that continuing on to read widely would help me ‘sharpen my sword’ and extend the shelf life of this advanced study.

I committed to reading a business book a month. This became a goal and there was never any shortage of good business books. My CEO at the time even recommended a few to me.

In June this year, I completed an ‘innovation for CTOs’ course at Stanford University; this was a thought provoking residential course that had heavyweights from the tech sector and other industries.

This experience helped me build personal networks and changed my approach to innovation. During my career, I learnt to work out exactly what skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours I would need to grow.

So if you’re a CIO who wants to innovate, you’re going to have to think a bit differently.

Take this example. For several years, a CIO (let's call him John) has been a ‘utility IT director’ focused on cost control and keeping the lights on. He doesn’t have much of a relationship with any other c-level executives.

Suddenly, he’s been asked to lead a big data project – working with a startup that uses an Agile development methodology. This project has the potential to completely change the way his organisation deals with its external customers.

John decides that if he is to contribute effectively to this new business-driven project, he needs to be more skilled in product design and problem solving. This will help him ask the right questions and help his team reach the expected outcome from the project.

To do this, he may take an online course, read a book, see if there’s a TED Talk on the subject, or talk to someone who knows something about design thinking.

John identifies that ‘deep business knowledge’ will be critical to delivering meaningful business innovation. To improve this area, he spends one day a fortnight with people working in the field.

John also needs to pay more attention to big data projects that are happening in similar industries to his own to determine what he can learn from these initiatives.

He will also need to influence and educate his board members about how this project will help the organisation acquire and keep customers.

As John doesn’t have a lot of Agile project experience, he’ll need to find a mentor to guide him through the development methodology. Perhaps he can get a reverse mentoring arrangement in place and learn from that new staff member who is a ‘gun’ in this agile work.

He wants to be valued by his fellow c-level executives and that will mean changing his behaviour and stepping outside his comfort zone of simply managing technology systems and cutting costs.

This means finding a way to challenge his colleagues and provide opinions in areas where he doesn’t necessarily have all the background knowledge. This will involve getting comfortable with uncomfortable domain areas, and seeking constant feedback from peers and his CEO.

As American author Marshall Goldsmith points out, leadership is a contact sport, so avoiding collisions can be difficult.

But taking these steps will potentially put John on the path of towards becoming an innovative CIO.

When it comes to innovation, most of us are in the same boat. Innovating across your organisation is a matter of trial and error. There are no shortcuts or CIO courses that will instantly make you an innovative IT leader.

But if you are willing to build on your skills, knowledge and experience, and alter your behaviour just slightly, you’re well on the way to getting there.

David Gee is the former CIO of CUA where he recently completed a core banking transformation. He has more than 18 years' experience as a CIO, and was also previously director at KPMG Consulting. Connect with David on LinkedIn.

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Tags agileDavid GeeIT innovationMarshall GoldsmithIT innovatorinnovative

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