True North Tech Series: Doing, Learning, and Adapting in 2018

Welcome to the True North Tech Journal. The 2018 edition of our annual thought leadership series covers a range of topics, from digital transformation, to cybersecurity, to bi-modal IT, to culture, and the current state of women in technology.

Underpinning our latest thinking is a North Highland-sponsored study on emerging trends and progress in technology. The study captures the sentiments of more than 300 senior-level technology and digital influencers and decision-makers in organizations across industries.

The results of the study can be viewed through two different lenses. On the one hand, we see robust take-up of important digital technologies and of digital transformation in general. Three-quarters or more of respondents report the successful use of technologies such as data and analytics, IT operations, cloud and security tools.

Automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning—some of the hottest topics in technology and digital today—scored lower in terms of usage. But even here, the portion of executives expecting significant take-up and impact within the next two years was at 79 percent or higher. Indeed, take-up expectations for many of the technologies were above 90 percent.

There’s a second important lens here, however, by which to view the survey results. If there’s a weakness or sore spot in the world of the CIO these days, it’s in alignment of leading-edge technologies with leadership and in the absence of an overall strategic vision. For example, the top-two barriers to expanding the use of advanced technologies throughout an organization are “leadership alignment” and “business sponsorship.” In areas such as automation and AI, fewer than half of the responding companies have a strategic vision. This means that aligning leaders around a vision, even for widely used technologies, is a significant opportunity to add value to the business.

The nature of IT leadership is changing as the pace of innovation accelerates. Many leaders are still working with a command-and-control mindset—the "I'm driving the car” mode" of running a company or IT function. Today, however, the metaphor for an IT-driven company is no longer a “machine” but rather “a living organism.” And that requires a different kind of leadership and management style. It’s no longer about running a machine; it’s about helping the organism evolve in a way that works to the entire company's advantage.

Creating a traditional, static five-year plan is no longer tenable. What’s needed now is a leadership mindset and culture that is comfortable with experimenting, evolving, and learning as you go. Where will things like toolchains, AI, and machine learning take us? The truth is that no one can have a precise answer to that. We need to dip our toes in the water and we need to nurture nascent technologies and help them grow so they feed our organizational goals. But we can’t plan too precisely about where the IT environment is going to end up.

Leaders also should consider their rhetoric about IT change in order to manage expectations more effectively. We need to re-set leadership mindsets about IT: from “building to last” to “building to change.” Agility and readiness to adapt should be the expectations today, not the impossible task of “future-proofing” technology solutions.

A related trend is a closer collaboration with business leaders to ensure that IT-based solutions are relevant and timely. Consider the different kinds of cooperative and collaborative environments that a CIO should be operating in today. In the area of customer engagement, the CIO will be working with the Chief Marketing Officer and/or Chief Sales Officer. In the area of digital partners and the supply chain, IT needs to work closely with the VP of Supply Chain as well as the COO. And in digital workforce enablement, collaboration with the Chief Human Resources officer will be essential. CIOs’ success isn’t based on just demonstrating control of IT. It’s based on providing the glue that connects and aligns all their peers to enable cross-functional transformation. From the position that many CIOs find themselves in today, that’s a big ask, but it’s an essential one.

A related point about managing this living organism in partnership with the business is about building mechanisms for direct feedback from the customer. With customer expectations evolving at an accelerated rate, some business decisions are no longer made by leadership, but by the customer.

As the famous saying goes, “change is the only constant.” But as you’ll see in this True North Tech Journal, the change isn’t only about technology. It’s about how IT works with the business, about new kinds of leadership that is looking to shape solutions rather than dictate and manage them, and it’s about a new kind of culture that’s open to experimentation, supported by ways of working and incentives that reward divergent thinking and innovation.

Take a look at our latest True North Tech blogs, and be sure to check the Technology & Digital page of True North for ongoing publications in the series throughout September:

  • The Future is Female: a firsthand perspective on the unique challenges and opportunities for women in the technology field
  • The Pursuit of a Stable, Integrated Team: A look into how organizations can optimize their teams for long-term stability in the development of technology solutions
  • Making People Your First Line of Defense: Insight into building a sustainable cybersecurity workforce strategy, backed by findings from North Highland proprietary research
  • Point-Counterpoint on the Value of Bi-Modal IT: Our experts discuss whether bi-modal IT can crack the code on the decades-old challenges associated with IT's partnership with the business
  • Lessons in Digital Transformation: We sit down with Femi Bamisaiye, CIO of Emergency Home Repair Company HomeServe, to share learnings and insights from experiences leading digital transformation initiatives
  • Building an Effective Cloud Strategy: Setting a strategic vision for cloud and reimagining legacy infrastructure can be a difficult step on the path to IT modernization. In tackling this challenge, Mark offers insight into a three-step framework that CIOs can apply to develop cloud strategy
  • Powering Modern IT Design with Microservices: Offering insight into the ways that IT leaders can make smarter investments and unlock the value of microservices
  • The Digital Journey Begins and Ends with People: Highlighting the ways that organizations can supercharge their digital transformation initiatives by focusing first on people