There was a time when people did not expect much out of chief information officers (CIOs) other than ensuring that their back-end operations remained stable and secure. The highest priorities were to maintain low technology costs and avoid risk — essentially, to keep the proverbial lights on. The contribution of innovative ideas that could lead to business transformation, significant process improvement, or market growth was neither expected, nor, in many cases, welcomed.
But expectations have changed in recent years. Governing boards and executive leadership have begun to realize that not only can CIOs bring value to the table, but also that a lack of technological innovation can hurt an organization’s ability to compete with more forward-thinking competitors. The time has come for CIOs to embrace the role of innovation leadership and be willing to take risks that reap big benefits.
This journey does not need to be embarked upon alone. Successful innovation by CIOs is most often accomplished by building strategic co-creation partnerships with non-information technology (IT) business leaders. In this analysis, I’ll explain how you, as CIO, can effectively build these co-creation relationships and guide the technology innovation conversation.
Join Forces With Technology Enthusiasts and Visionaries
While you may eventually win over the C-suite skeptics and technophobes who approve new technology spending on your own, you will initially make faster progress by joining forces with someone who appreciates the value that technology can bring. This co-creation partner can help explain to the board or executives who approve new technology spending how this investment will help the business.
Examples of potential co-creation partnerships include someone like a vice president of marketing who has already witnessed the benefits that a marketing automation strategy can bring; a CFO who has seen AP automation in action; or a manufacturing or engineering vice president who might already be working with factory technology that they are eager to integrate into other systems, such as artificial intelligence (AI), with the goal of increasing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).
Look for the Low Hanging Fruit
The co-creation partner will likely already have ideas for improvement in their area. The CIO’s job is to match those needs with new technology solutions that can both support their project and build frameworks that are ready to support other needs as they arise. The current market realities offer some low-hanging fruit in terms of new technology solutions and potential frameworks to be built to support new needs. The Covid-19 pandemic forced most companies to turn to their CIOs for help managing the logistical challenges brought on by closed offices and other facilities, limited travel, and a sudden need to support remote work situations. It was an opportunity for those CIOs who were prepared to meet those challenges to demonstrate innovative value.
Now is a good time to leverage that momentum and use those wins as a conversation starter. We’ve only begun to understand the realities of a distributed, increasingly remote workforce. New technologies designed to increase online collaboration, enable hybrid conference rooms, and provide remote support for factory shop floors can be a good starting point. The CIO could also could introduce new technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and enhanced conferencing solutions.
In addition to the sudden need to provide remote work arrangements, another challenge has been a shortage of available workers. This presents another opportunity for tech innovation: process improvement through automation. In the past, automation might have been seen as a threat to workers afraid of being replaced by physical robots or software bots. During a worker shortage, it is a way to get more done with fewer resources. We still need the workers we have, but now we can grow the business without necessarily adding more employees. This is a great conversation starter for the use of intelligent automation solutions.
In order to win over a potential co-creation partner who can help you get both funding and credibility with the board or executives, you need to build trust. There are two particularly effective ways to do this:
- Learn. Take the time to absorb all you can about the partner’s area of business. Take them to lunch. Ask lots of questions. Do your research. You will have to stretch your knowledge well beyond IT topics to understand their needs well enough to co-create solutions with them.
- Proof of concept (POC). Once you have an idea that you think might work, start small. Don’t try to dive straight into a major project before testing the waters. Many software providers — particularly those with cloud-based technologies — make it easy to try before you buy. Build just enough to deliver a convincing demo. This will go a long way towards building the trust you will need to tackle major innovative projects.
There has never been a better time for CIOs to demonstrate their value through innovation. Organizations, leadership, and boards are looking to CIOs to help them stay competitive in a fast-changing environment. It is imperative for CIOs to take this opportunity to establish powerful co-creation relationships with tech-aware business allies, build trust by learning about their needs, and deliver some quick wins with low-hanging fruit.
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