By: Anna Frazzetto Issue: Transformation Section: Business "Innovation” is a very difficult term to define, but it is absolutely everywhere. Few Chief Inforamtion Officers (CIOs) or IT leaders would say they are not innovative in their work. In fact, the Harvey Nash CIO Survey found that three-quarters of CIOs believe their companies will lose market share if they fail to innovate. Innovation is a must. But, ask CIOs and business leaders to define exactly what innovation means, and you will get a surprisingly wide variety of responses. Try to find a job description in IT leadership without the words “innovative” and “innovation,” and you might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack.
What is it that businesses and the marketplace are looking for when they seek out innovative companies, ideas and people? Fifteen to 20 years ago the term may only have been about technology. Innovation referred to the work people and businesses did to develop and enhance technology tools, from computers and programming languages to software and servers. Innovation today means “business.” Innovation is the way in which companies and people are creatively transforming technology to make their businesses unique and, as a result, more effective, more profitable, better known and better able to beat the competition.
Web 2.0, mobile technology and cloud computing have all presented genuinely new ways to operate businesses, engage customers, open new markets and create new revenue streams. Those businesses and business leaders who can transform those technologies into strategic opportunities that set their businesses apart are innovating. They are converting technology ingenuity into business value, and that is why innovation means so much. It moves the bottom line higher.
The Transformative CIO: Putting Business First
While “innovation” may be the keyword most people think of when seeking out the right IT executive to lead, “transformative” is another way to look at the requirement. CIOs today must have the vision, insight and creativity to transform today’s ever-advancing technologies into new and better business opportunities. A job requisition for a CIO ten years ago would have focused strongly on project management, technical understanding and the ability to relate to internal customers. She or he would have been a technologist first. Today, important new traits are being added to CIO job descriptions that reflect the more interconnected, multifarious, externally focused and fast-changing world we live and work in. He or she must be a business leader first.
To understand the profile of transformative technology leaders, the Harvey Nash CIO Survey examined the traits of CIO innovators. The results showed that innovative CIOs demonstrate ambition, influence, job fulfillment, boldness and progressive thinking. According to the survey results, innovative CIOs today:
• Report to the CEO (25 percent more likely than the overall CIO population) • Have realistic aspirations to become a CEO (26 percent more likely) • Have had budget increases in the last year (18 percent more likely) • Are a member of the operational board or executive management team (22 percent more likely) • Use innovation as a source of competitive advantage rather than focus on cost savings (29 percent more likely) • Find their job very fulfilling (24 percent more likely) • Invest to a great extent in team training (36 percent more likely)
Harvey Nash has spent years not only surveying the world’s IT leaders, but also placing them in key roles and helping them build their IT organizations. Those who have been most successful in cultivating innovation and driving transformative change are able to balance both new-economy skills and old-school technology smarts. They understand the business today, but are willing to embrace a radically different tomorrow. To shed light on how individuals can become transformative CIOs and businesses can identify them, here are ten lessons and best practices from IT leaders and business innovators from the CIO Survey.
10 Lessons in Transformative IT Leadership
1 Don’t Be Afraid of the Shadows Everyone likes the bright spotlight, but innovative CIOs are able to find transformation possibilities in both the likely places—social media, cloud or mobile—and the unexpected ones. Accounting or tax departments may not sound excessively glamorous, but the opportunities for increasing efficiency and business intelligence are as strong in these areas as they are in any other of an organization. An innovative CIO will gladly go off the traditional path of innovation to identify win-win transformation opportunities across all areas of the business.
Take, for example, the CIO of a major professional services company that Harvey Nash supports. He realized that a recent change in tax laws of one country where the business operates would allow the firm—through technology alone—to relocate the processing of certain functions. The result was a substantial reduction in operating expenses. Grand in scale? Perhaps not.
An innovation that delivered notable and sustainable bottom-line results? Absolutely.
2Be Open-Minded and Agile
It’s trite, but true and transformative. Innovators are open to the possibilities—all possibilities—and they are quick to convert on the strong ones. As technologies and business models continue to evolve, it is becoming increasingly difficult to come up with concrete long-term, or even medium-term, business strategies. Successful digital leaders embrace this uncertain world. They are able to work with changing strategies by adapting priorities. Open-minded and agile, they can switch gears quickly when the business requires. They are prepared to pursue multiple streams of projects, killing off the unsuccessful and evolving the most promising. For a CIO innovator, even the primary business objective of an initiative is not sacrosanct, as it can change over the course of a project or might not even exist formally at the start. In lieu of this lack of certainty, CIO innovators are guided by an instinct for what will work for the business.
3Maintain Old-School Business Acumen
Innovation is no longer synonymous with stargazing. More than ever, it is rooted in sound commercial principles and a focused return on investment. While businesses do look for IT leaders who can create a vision, they are also looking for pragmatic people who are able to translate creative concepts into commercial value. They understand how to make a business case.
4Mix Form and Function
In a world increasingly defined by technology products that have a strong design ethos from companies such as Apple and Google, CIO innovators know that even the very best functioning product is likely to have limited success if its user interface is not up to snuff. For that reason, design interface is central and often the starting point of an IT project today, whereas it used to be a stage further down the project life cycle.
Interestingly, the look-and-feel of technology tools and products seems to be core to a digital innovator's DNA. They understand the requirement of functional excellence but also put extremely high value on form. This, without a doubt, is a radical change from CIOs of years past who focused almost exclusively on function. A true modern CIO innovator must clearly understand the intense personal engagement today’s technology users expect from their tools and applications. They know that design and usability can have as strong an impact as functionality in the present landscape.
5Make Failure an Option
True innovators and transformative leaders are not afraid to take calculated risks. Rather like a venture capitalist, they see their projects as a portfolio that they nurture. They accept and embrace the idea that many of these projects will not result in a big return. They see failure as a learning experience, and are clever enough to have enough successes to stay in the game.
6Embrace Your Inner Geek
At the end of the day, technology is still the tie that binds, and CIO innovators have a surprisingly firm grasp of the technical details. They understand that while new technology can create new opportunities, it can also create new competitors and threats. Innovators are passionate about the technical landscape that they operate in. This is not only because they are genuinely interested, but also because without it, their innovations and ability to generate transformative business change is greatly limited.
7Cultivate a Shepherding Instinct
Digital innovators tend to foster innovation, rather than own or manage it. For instance, they will empower other people to devise social network strategies and then work back from the successes achieved to formulate company-wide policies or ground rules. They are capable of guiding from a distance, without stamping out passion and innovation elsewhere. Giving others the opportunity to own “the glory” is one of the reasons people want to work for transformative CIOs.
8Train and Grow Top Teams
Transformative leaders understand that skills—both technical and business—must always evolve in the current market of change and globalization. Innovative CIOs want their teams to learn, grow and constantly develop new skills and knowledge that will propel the company’s technology capabilities and business opportunities forward. They want their staff to see technology as a means to achieving the business’s goals, which requires equal parts technology and business training.
9Build a Lab for Experimentation
Innovative CIOs cultivate curiosity and experimentation among their teams. Whether running a physical lab or not, many of today’s most successful CIOs encourage a laboratory-like environment, allowing staff members time to push, test and experiment with technology in order to see where it might take the business. Understanding that resources and time are limited, transformative CIOs still find ways to give their brightest tech and business minds time to create and play with technologies that are reshaping the business landscape.
10Be a Trusted Advisor
For many CEOs, investing in a digital innovation is a leap of faith. That is exactly why it is so important that the person leading the innovation has the trust of the CEO and the company board. Innovative CIOs blueprint transformative, innovative IT projects and work nonstop to ensure the company’s senior leaders and stakeholders understand the aim of those projects. Their understanding and backing determine whether the entire company will embrace or resist the initiative.
Transformation Starts with Innovators
True innovations set a business apart in a fundamental, not a transitory, way. Rather than copying competitors and following trends, innovative businesses and their leaders are paving their own way forward. Never before has the role of the CIO held so much opportunity to shape business strategy, create new business opportunities and lead transformations that change the business in essential and lasting ways.
It’s true that the CIO role looks very different than it did 10-15 years ago. It’s a role that has transformed, putting IT at the forefront of business innovation and its senior leaders (CIOs) in the thick of shaping and delivering business value. And isn’t that also one of the most important traits of a transformative, innovative leader? A leader who can adapt and grow with the business is one who will continue to make important, lasting contributions despite shifting markets, changing economies and constant technology evolution.
Anna Frazzetto is the senior vice president of International Technology Solutions at Harvey Nash, a global professional recruitment consultancy and IT outsourcing service provider. To learn more about the CIO Survey 2012 visit www.harveynash.com/ciosurvey.