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.

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

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.”

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

 

Meet the new boss …

…. same as the old boss ?????                

“Originally featured in cio.co.uk – http://tinyurl.com/mu4zd5z ” 
The time has passed when executives could wear their lack of IT knowledge as a ‘badge of honour’ 
I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing a bit of digital advisory and consulting recently. Its been a real eye opener. Not because “digital” is possibly the most misunderstood and misused word of the last few years. Or because there are so many column inches written about it (oh bugger, I’m adding to them). No its been an eye opener to see how many leaders are just abdicating their responsibilities.

Pete Townsend said “ meet the new boss, same as the old boss” …. and sadly, too often, that’s exactly who I meet. The same old boss who wears his lack of technology knowledge as a badge of honour. “I don’t do technology”, “I don’t do social media” and maybe sometimes – “I’ve got an IT guy who does all that – I still print my emails”The single most important aspect of the “digital journey”, after clear leadership, is what people are now calling “engaged executives”. These are the senior leaders in your organisation who genuinely believe that “IT matters” and accept that they need to step up and take clear and direct ownership of their firms digital activities.
You see “digital leadership” is about everyone in the firm. Its not about hiring a CDO (though some companies may need one to act as a catalyst or provocateur). This is about about recognising that this “digital journey” is primarily a change of culture and approach across your whole enterprise. Its recognising that technology – which enables and underpins this journey – is now everyone’s job and that everyone needs to have the vocabulary of technology.

The time has past when executives could where their lack of IT knowledge as a badge of honour. You’d never hire a CFO who “didn’t do math”, but equally you’d never hire any executive sales, marketing, managing director etc who didn’t do “numbers” – so how can you have people “who don’t do technology”.

Now you don’t have to be an expert, but get some vocabulary, do some research, get engaged, try, learn, explore, experience ….. The “digital journey” is going to create some new challenges and “not doing technology” will be like driving a Fiesta on the motorway when everyone else is in Ferrari’s. You’d better pull over and get out of the way.

I’m bored … the chairman of the bored

Earlier in the year I was interviewed for IMIS magazine by Shirley Redpath on the topic of CIO’s on the Board – a question, as she so eloquently put it that “has has been doing the rounds in the industry Press and IT talking shops for well over a decade.”.

Once again, in my normal understated fashion, I postulated that there were more important things to worry about and that ultimately it was really all down to you and your view of yourself.  A great mantra from my old fiend David Taylor – the Naked Leader – is that if the things you are doing arent taking you closer to where you want to be then do something else – and if that doesn’t work then do something else etc etc. The only true insanity is to do the same things and hope for a different outcome. So if you believe the only way to achieve your goals and be effective is to be on the main board and for whatever reason, you’re not there or likely to get there- then go somewhere else.

Here are a few of the more pithy extracts :-

  • “I’m pretty sure a lot of CIOs who aspire to be on the main Board don’t know what happens in those meetings,” says Ian Cohen, currently Group CIO of international insurance giant, Jardine Lloyd Thompson.  “It can often be quite mundane and procedural, particularly around the sort of governance and compliance activities that the main Boards of regulated businesses have to deal with. A lot of it is actually far less “exciting” than you might expect”.

Cohen’s view is backed up by a 2011 Gartner survey involving CIOs in both the US and the UK.  It showed that although many respondents had regular engagement with their main Boards, only 21% actually aspired to a place at that august table.

  • Still, according to Cohen, having a seat on the main Board should make little difference to the CIO’s ability to make a value contribution to the organisation.   “For me,” he says, “there is no difference between how effective I was in an organisation where I was on the main Board and the effectiveness that I can have in an organisation where I’m not.  I have the same conversations, I speak to the same people and we run the same programmes.  The point is not whether you sit there or not, the point is how you as a leader focus and enable your function so that the technology capability you build drives your business forward.”
  • “The most important question for me going into a role is am I going to be able to build a great relationship with the CEO; am I going to help the CEO deliver his or her vision for the organisation?  Will technology be able to evolve, mature or develop to enable, support and underpin the business in its drive to achieve that vision?  If I can do that, we will be aligned. You need a good, strong, robust, open, bilateral and challenging relationship with your CEO and executive colleagues so that if they do come up with some hare-brained scheme you can tell them it is hare-brained and they will listen because they respect and trust you,” Cohen says.
  • Ronald Blahnik, VP/IT Engineering for Lowe’s Co. in the US is quoted as saying  the “I” in CIO now stands for innovation, not information.”  That view has Cohen up in arms.  “No CIO owns the right to innovation,” he retorts.  “At our very best, we are the “enablers of things”.  We tell stories and paint pictures about the art of the possible and if they get traction, we create new environments and capabilities that allow great things to happen.

The full transcript is here 

A litlle more on clouds …

… originally published in i-CIO based on an interview in mid 2010

“I get somewhat disturbed by the term “cloud.” All the marketing and vendor hype surrounding it is confusing what should be a very important debate about the underpinning technologies and what they can do for your business.

All good CIOs know that they have to be, first and foremost, business leaders. But we are business leaders who have an area of expertise, and we must be able to apply that expertise — which is in how technology enables our businesses. That blend of business and technology acumen is now more important than ever.

The technology that underpins what vendors are calling “cloud computing” is rapidly maturing and does offer some interesting new opportunities, but I believe it’s important not to get carried away here.

It’s not a paradigm shift. It’s not a whole new world. It’s just change. It’s the same kind of change as when we went from the abacus to the mainframe, from mainframe to client/server, and so on. We live in a change industry. Change is what we’re all about, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary in that respect.

I am, however — as we all should be in these tough times — interested in the capex/opex shift that comes from utilizing these technologies, because I think it represents the possibility for a fundamental change to some of our business models.

I am also interested in the potential it has for removing some of the entry barriers to new markets that might otherwise have had a high capital-intensive set-up. And I am very interested in how the technologies will allow us to blend parts of our own infrastructure with the infrastructures of specific partners and public services.

But rather than talking about types of “cloud” — public, private, hybrid, whatever — we should be asking: Do these new models fit with our current sourcing decisions, be they hosting or hosted? And the answer is, in many cases: They absolutely do.

As CIOs — and increasingly this is a truly hybrid role — we need to focus the debate around the economics of our businesses and the appropriateness of the technologies to meet the strategic intent of our companies.

But we must not get wrapped up in the marketing spin and hype. We must focus on the practical aspects. CIOs and the rest of the technology profession have had a hard enough time acquiring sufficient language to engage in business discussions with business customers.

And now our profession — particularly the supply side — comes along and creates some nonsense term for what is actually, underneath, a very valuable and very business-critical technology.

I am worried that the reality of cloud can’t match the hype because it has been hyped out of all proportion. Also, just because it’s “the cloud” does not mean the basic disciplines of technology operations or sourcing can be ignored — they can’t.

So let’s focus on what the technology can do. And, like all new technologies — although in this case the concept is not that new — you need to dip your toe in the water and try it.”

• Follow Ian Cohen on Twitter: @coe62

….. of strengths and weaknesses

“You think that I’m strong
You’re wrong,  you’re wrong
I’ll sing my song – my song, my song”

So sang Robbie Williams in his introspective stadium anthem – Strong.

It’s an interesting thought – do you actually know your own strengths and weaknesses or, more importantly, those of the people you lead. I choose these words carefully because I don’t necessarily mean what people are “good” or “bad” at because that can often be very different.

Think about that for a second. Isn’t there something that you do – that people think you’re “good at” – but frankly if you never did that activity again it wouldn’t be a moment too soon. What would you call that ?? Well, many who believe in strengths development would actually call that a weakness. Any activity that leaves you feeling depleted or drained is a weakness. Conversely an activity that enthuses you, invigorates you – one that when your involved in it time just flys by … that would be a strength

Why the distinction – well for years we’ve all been a bit remedial. We appraise (and actuality also educate) people on the false premise that we are there to fix what we see as their weaknesses (or what’s bad) in the hope we’ll develop strengths or improve performance. The problem is that this rarely works.

Jeez, have you had a good appraisal recently ?? More often than not its 5 minutes of discussing what went well and then 55 minutes of “identifying areas of development”. Oh please – by that very action you’re characterising someone by what they’re not rather than focusing on making more of what they already are. That doesn’t mean you can ignore weaknesses, particularly when they impact ones strengths, but it’s all about were you focus to get the best outcome for everyone involved. Indeed, the research shows people make their greatest leaps in performance when building on their strengths… so why do som many still focus on the complete opposite. We spend our time trying to turn bad into good. Its nonsense. If you invert bad – you get ‘NOT BAD’ which is very different to good great or excellent.

And more than ever in this profession we call technology, we need ‘excellent’ !! That’s excellent engagement and communication skills when working with our colleagues, our staff and most of all our customers – ‘not bad’ is not enough. So we need to get better at identifying people’s strengths and getting them to do more with them.

In the coming years, though many would say “right now” as well, we need a new generation of enthusiastic technology leaders who can engage in new dialogues, articulate new possibilities and listen for the new opportunities in a whole new way. We need them to tell stories and paint pictures about how the new disruptive forces of technology can transform business. These wont be the techie, bits and bytes, propeller head conversations of the past and they will need people with a whole new vocabulary; people for whom driving these conversations into positive and tangible outcomes will be their most dominant strength. The power of the relationship will be the dominant factor in creating the solution, not the technology.

So where are these people ? Do you have them ? and if not, then where are you going to find them ? I wish I had the answer – I don’t – but I can give you a clue about what to look out for…. it might just have something to do with people’s strengths.

CIOs and the recession

I was recently asked to do an interview for the Economist Intelligence Unit on the role of the CIO in a recession.

The interview found its way into a report that is available here >>> EIU Article

Interestingly (or not – depending on your views on these things) it morphed into a panel discussion that is now up on their website. The webcast was set out to “….discuss how CIOs are driving innovation in their organisations today, amidst continued budget stringency and in an uncertain growth environment.

  • How will continued cost discipline affect IT-led innovation?
  • Who are now the CIO’s most important and effective allies as champions of innovation?
  • Has the recession weakened employees’ and managers’ resistance to change?
  • How central are social media and cloud computing to innovation initiatives today?

OK it doesn’t quite have the cut and thrust of BBC Question Time but you can see how we all got on

… or click here for the webcast and content  >>>  EIU Webcast

Enjoy and, as usual, please feel free to post comments, retweet or whatever.