The Accidental CIO

A collection of thoughts about business, digital, people, technology and all that stuff…

Everybody’s talkin’ at me

Digital transformation, disruption and the increasing pace of change – are you using current business and technology lingo correctly?

Everybody’s talkin’ at me
But I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’
Only the echoes of my mind

These lyrics, made famous by Harry Nilsson in his 1969 version, are currently doing the rounds in an advert by a technology vendor about “moving to the cloud” (don’t even get me started!) – but they did make me think about the use or misuse of certain words and phrases.

You see, I got caught up in a number of seemingly semantic debates recently thanks to my apparent poor choice of words. What I found interesting though, was that I was actually using words and phrases that have become increasingly common in the modern business and technology narrative. I’m going to share them with you and see what you think.

The first, and the one that caused the most immediate response, concerned the “increasing pace of technology change” and the question was straightforward – is technology really moving any faster than before? David Moschella from the Leading Edge Forum said recently that “the time it takes for a new technology to be adopted by 50% of US households has long been a metric for cross-technology comparisons. By that measure both radios (8 years) and black-and-white TV (9 years) reached the 50% threshold much faster than PCs (17 years) or mobile phones (15 years)”. So is it really about speed or simply the fact that there is just so much technology out there that everything just feels faster? There are so many new things (apps, devices, solutions) coming at us from so many different directions that the volume can be overwhelming.

The second discussion focused on term “Digital Transformation”. Yes I know, it’s used everywhere but I’m convinced that very few people actually mean it when they say it. You see, to transform actually means an “irrevocable change in form, appearance, or structure; essentially a metamorphosis” – and the key point here is the irrevocable change. Far too many organizations talk about ‘transformation’ when what they really just mean is ‘change’. They don’t actually want to be anything new – they just want to do a few things differently to satisfy investors, markets or their perception of customer needs. Very often it’s just lipstick on a pig. Not to say there’s anything wrong with that. Indeed many organisations would benefit from digitising many of their operations and processes to improve efficiency, reduce cost and actually engage with some customers, but that’s not transformation.

Finally there’s the old chestnut: “disruption”. Well this column is called “The Disruptive CIO”, but whenever I hear the word, I immediately wonder what you are trying to disrupt and more importantly – why? Earlier this year the American-born entrepreneur and investor Julie Meyer commented that this is “the era of design; not disruption” and in that simple phrase she highlighted the positive rather than negative aspects of disruption. Too often we laud the displacement or destruction of an activity as it becomes disrupted rather than the development or improvement of something – which I consider to be positive disruption.

So there you have it. As the Bee Gees said – “It’s only words…” – but next time I’ll be choosing them a bit more wisely.

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Please don’t let me be misunderstood

In this fast moving digital world there are even faster moving digital dangers that everyone needs to understand

When things go wrong, I seem to be bad.

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good:

Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood.

The blues classic, written for Nina Simone and made famous by the Animals, got me thinking about what one needs to understand and to what level.

In a recent article Ian Cox quite properly asserted that CIOs needed to know many things to be successful, but how to code wasn’t necessarily one of them. A reasonable perspective given the broad range of topics your typical CIO needs to understand. But in what, if anything, should a CIO be an expert?

Sure, it’s useful to know about coding and possibly recognise the good from the bad – but how much detail do you need to know? As Edmund Blackadder once said during his time as a butler, when asked by the Prince Regent about a machine called The Ravelling Nancy…

PR: What does it do?
EB: It ravels cotton, sir.
PR: What for?
EB: That I cannot say, sir. I am one of these people who are quite happy to wear cotton, but have no idea how it works.

Most CIOs have the breadth of knowledge and experience and have members of their teams who understand various levels of detail – few are expert at all levels of their operations.

Which might be fine until we have a week like this one when in the wake of the Talk Talk cyber attack, CEO Dido Harding visibly struggled under some very precise BBC questioning over the exact nature of the attack and the levels of data protection offered by her company. Should she have known her ‘SQL Injection’ from her ‘IRC-Worm’? More importantly, perhaps – would you? And does the fact that she didn’t make her any less effective as a CEO. A straw poll of CIOs suggested that most would have been equally flummoxed by the detail of the questions and would have reached for their trusty Security Architect or CISO.

What becomes very apparent is that in this fast moving digital world there are even faster moving digital dangers that everyone needs to understand. In a previous post I suggested that the days of C-Suite executives wearing their lack of IT knowledge as a badge of honour were over and the last week’s incidents only serve to amplify that fact.

I’m not saying you need to know every detail but there should be a minimum level of competence. If the BBC reporter was asking about the company’s financial performance, it would be inconceivable that a CEO wouldn’t understand their balance sheet sufficiently to handle the questions – so why not technology or indeed data security? Customers will rightly expect organisations to protect their information and it therefore behoves executives to have a certain level of security savvy and vocabulary.

Equally, I’m not saying they should know how to build or maintain a Ravelling Nancy but at least they should know that they own one, that it ravels the cotton and it’s responsible for the shirt on their back.

Come Talk To Me

Come Talk To Me - Ian Cohen

Ah please talk to me. Won’t you please talk to me

We can unlock this misery. Come on, come talk to me

I did not come to steal. This all is so unreal 

Can’t you show me how you feel. Come on, come talk to me

 

Yes, another Peter Gabriel lyric – but this one came to mind in a discussion around the value of customer complaints

I recently read and posted on a Forbes article suggesting that firms should actively encourage their customers to complain. Essentially the point was that, in a world where we are all trying to delight our customers, understanding why they complain – indeed, actively encouraging these complaints was a great way for a company to gauge how they were performing when it comes to delivering a competitive customer experience

My problem is that this is only part of the story and taken on its own is a potentially harmful perspective. You see, studying complaints will tell you a lot about why some of your customers complain but will tell you nothing about why others are absolutely delighted with your product or service. For many years now I have been concerned by a growing kind of one dimensional causality used by certain analysts.

This crops up in more places than you would expect  – people study divorce to understand about marriage;  we study unhappy customers to understand the happy ones;  employers study disgruntled employees and even hold exit interviews in the vain hope that this will in some way help improve the workplace and help us better understand our staff.  People say we learn from our mistakes – No; we learn about our mistakes from our mistakes – they tell us nothing about our successes.

And that’s my point there’s nothing wrong about encouraging your customers to complain and analysing those complaints IF the aim is to learn why your customers are unhappy. Just don’t think it will tell you anything about why others are delighted.

This all came into sharper focus whilst having a discussion at a recent startup boot-camp style event where a guy proudly told me how his MVP (minimum viable product) had this amazing return loop for capturing feedback on the features that didn’t work well or that customers didn’t like / want. So I casually asked – “What about the stuff they love? How do you encourage them to tell you that?” The silence was palpable and was accompanied with the kind of look “wrinklies” like me are getting used to.

Don’t get me wrong, of course you should analyse why customers discard your product or ignore certain features but don’t think that will tell you anything about why others keep it and focus on certain features. Success, like failure has its own configuration and needs to be studied.

If you are opening a dialogue with your customers you need to focus on the good and the bad; what they love as well as what they hate. Like any great conversation it needs to have the light and the dark if you ever hope to understand the whole picture…

……. so come on; come talk to me

A catalyst of change ??

There’s been an huge amount of column inches (or whatever the on-line equivalent is) to CDO’s…. of the Chief Digital kind rather than the Chief Data variety.

I’ve gone on record as saying that some companies will require such a role as a “catalyst of change” in a particular sector and specifically if their CIO wasn’t necessary comfortable with the whole “outside in”, consumer and data-led focus of the digital agenda. Equally, however, there are plenty of CIO’s out there who are comfortable with that narrative and they are incredibly well placed to lead “digital transformation” initiatives, though sometimes lack the presence or confidence to seize the initiative.

Some of my thoughts and comments are here – https://leadingedgeforum.com/publication/60-of-firms-face-a-digital-leadership-gap-2499/ – in some recent LEF research

Anyway, I was pleased to see a post in a similar vein from Dominic Collins on Linkedin – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/i-wrong-chief-digital-officers-dominic-collins?trk=hp-feed-article-title-like

I was particularly drawn to his comments on the of the CDO role as a catalyst of change in certain organisations

“Essentially the CDO should be a catalyst – defined as… a substance, usually used in small amounts relative to the reactants, that modifies and increases the rate of a reaction without being consumed in the process.

The interesting thing about a catalyst is that once the desired reaction and transformation has taken place, the catalyst itself is unchanged and no longer required”

So do you agree with Dominic’s statement ??

I’ll tell what the smile on my face meant

I’m often asked why I left corporate life so suddenly. What was the catalyst, will I go back and other related questions. And as I hear those questions I also hear a tune in my head the lyrics of which go:

So I went from day to day, tho’ my life was in a rut

‘Till I thought of what I’d say, which connection I should cut

Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill is an amazingly simple yet thought provoking (and often misunderstood) song. It particularly resonates because, back in mid 2014, as with most of my career to date, I didn’t have a grand master plan to shape what I was about to do next. I’d been fortunate to have spent the previous 5 years achieving goals, building an incredible team and creating new capabilities but I just knew I wanted to do something else.

I was feeling part of the scenery. I walked right out of the machinery

My heart going boom boom boom. “Hey” he said “Grab your things I’ve come to take you home”.

So, to try and answer the “Why” question I opened with; It’s easy to get comfortable with where you are – particularly if you are successful. Its also easy to  fall into the trap of believing that you are “pushing the envelope” when actually you’re not. Yes you may be innovating and achieving in the context of where you are but that’s the point – the outcomes are only seen through the lense of where you are.

In a recent post for CIO.co.uk I wondered why I used to see so few corporate CIO’s at meetups, boot camps, hackathons or other “startup type” gatherings and I suggested that perhaps it was just that they felt uncomfortable at such events. Perhaps they were just more comfortable at the familiar, traditional, big vendor led, CIO type shindigs. Now I wasn’t being critical – if that’s your thing then fine. For me, though, the desire to get involved, engaged…. experienced (as I said in the post’s title) was too great. I’d already started to work with “startups” and I learn by experiencing and doing stuff so for me it was natural to just dive in.

And it’s because I made that “dive” that I’m doing what I do now. I get the luxury of working with some incredibly bright companies who do amazing things for their clients – and I love every minute. Its got variety, challenge, the ability for me to bring my skills and experience to the table whilst also learning loads along the way – what’s not to love.??

It can be daunting and often uncomfortable leaving the safety of a regular paycheck and going out to build a business, win clients and create value (for them and for you). What it does do however is make you incredibly focussed on doing work you enjoy and working with people that you both respect and like working with. It’s hugely cathartic.

… and so, to quote again from Solsbury Hill…

Today I don’t need a replacement, I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant

My heart going boom boom boom, “Hey” I said “You can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home.”

There’s more to “start-up life” than London

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life according to Samuel Johnson.

Well if you’re a start-up there’s more to life than hankering after an expensive converted loft in Shoreditch.

The start-up scene is vibrant all around the UK and good example would be the burgeoning ecosystem in Bristol and Bath, which form part of the so-called Silicon Gorge in the south west of England. The place of birth of a number of well-known start-ups and tech companies, this region shows that sustainable businesses can be built by passionate people even with limited access to VC money and acceleration programmes.

See more in the original article at – http://thenextweb.com/eu/2015/07/18/engineers-meet-artists-startup-ecosystem-bristol-bath/

Forget Millennials. Is Your Workplace Ready for Generation Z?

This past year, Millennials became the largest generation in the work force. In the United States, they number over 80 million, making Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995) the largest cohort size in history.

As this generation reaches their mid-30s, employers are now beginning to shift their focus to the next big wave: Generation Z who are just now entering college and wondering how they will respond to their workplace requirements

Check out the article athttp://www.inc.com/larry-kim/forget-millennials-is-your-workplace-ready-for-generation-z-infographic.html