Although IT plays a significant part in most business transformations, IT executives are rarely given the lead role. That needs to change, and the first step is for IT executives to really understand the core principles of transformation.

A partnership between CSC and Connaught School, a secondary school in Hampshire that needed to dramatically improve their Ofsted performance rating, illustrates key principles facing most businesses today. Change is now both prevalent and a key part of remaining competitive. Transformation principles are consistent across not just businesses, but also endeavours. For this reason, the same principles that helped a school transform itself can also help businesses transform themselves.

Nearly every organisation in every industry is undergoing dramatic change, and IT executives can be key enablers of these changes — but only if they can adapt and update their own roles. CIOs and other IT executives need to fully understand the fundamentals of transformation. Then they need to lead their organisations through the cycle of change.

That’s a key element of what CSC did with Connaught School. The partnership, formed as part of CSC’s social responsibility programme and still ongoing, aims to provide CSC’s transformation expertise to help Connaught transform, while at the same time providing professional and personal development for CSC’s employees. The programme has been jointly managed by CSC and Connaught School with the goal of leveraging CSC’s capabilities to help transform an underperforming school. To begin, the school’s head teacher and the CSC transformation lead jointly identified a small number of change initiatives, then appointed resources from both sides. These initiatives included providing transformation coaching for the Head teacher, coaching more than 50 students to carry out ICT projects, and engaging with parents and feeder primary schools.

Connaught School has been going through a significant transformation journey. The head teacher first provided a common vision for the school; then she aligned the leadership team to that vision. Next, she focused on middle management, then teaching staff and students, and finally external stakeholders, including parents and feeder schools. Success was regularly celebrated; the school’s key achievements were proudly presented in the front reception area. The head teacher also invested much time and effort in making clear why the school had to change, and the key areas required to change.

The results have been truly transformational. Last year, 86% of Connaught School’s students received 5 GCSE grades A* to C, up dramatically from just 56% in 2009, one year before the CSC project began. Today, more than 65% of the students say they are ‘interested’ in pursuing IT-related careers, and more than 20% say they are ‘very interested’. The school’s head teacher, Lindsey Abbott, has told us, ‘This is the best business-school partnership I have been involved in’.

Abbott adds, ‘I have had to make some very difficult decisions over the past three years. The opportunity to discuss business ideas and principles with change-management leads and attend a valuable training programme has enabled me to transform the school into the inspirational establishment it is today. The students have valued the business input, not only to help them improve their grades, but also, through presentations at CSC, to gain confidence in their ability to be the best that they can be.’

Transformation matters

The lesson for CIOs and other senior IT executives is clear. As Charles Darwin pointed out, survival favours neither the strongest nor the most intelligent, but those most adaptable to change. And change is everywhere. Globalisation links markets as never before. New regulations are being drawn and approved, seemingly on a daily basis. Technology is changing quickly, too, with the advent and rapid adoption of cloud computing, ‘everything as a service,’ mobile technology, social media and Big Data analytics. Customer behaviour is changing, too, propelled by their new and accelerated expectations. IT executives in every industry need to respond quickly. They can lead these changes by gaining a deeper understanding of both new technologies and business transformation.

The good news is that many IT executives are well aware of this change. Earlier this year, CSC surveyed more than 680 CIOs, IT directors and IT managers at large companies and public agencies in nearly 20 countries worldwide. The survey, as detailed in CSC’s CIO Barometer 2013 report, finds that more than 90% of IT leaders expect their department’s main contribution in the next three years will be to help set the direction of the core business — not technology — strategy. Nothing else in the survey question came even close.

Key principles of change

If IT executives are to lead business transformations, they will need new tactics. No matter what industry or organizational type, the principles of change — and the CIO’s recommended courses of action — are similar. Here are CSC’s five principles for change, and for each, a suggested action plan for IT leaders:

Principle 1: Set a clear direction for the future.
CIO action: Most businesses have relatively clear visions, but very little linkage to what the business does or how it wants to change. IT executives can leverage their unique, across-the-business view to lead the development of a Target Operating Model and Balanced Scorecard.

Principle 2: Transformation should be inside-out; otherwise you can end up with a ‘lipstick on a pig’ outcome.
CIO action: Ensure that the sequence of change is correct. For example, don’t let the organisation automate ineffective processes, or you will end up doing the wrong things, just quicker! The easiest sequence is people before process and technology, and quality before cost and differentiation.

Principle 3: A vision is not a great catalyst of change; what’s needed is a leadership team behaving in a consistent way, guided by a common vision.
CIO action: As a member of the leadership team, ensure that the IT components of the transformation programme are aligned with the vision.

Principle 4: Establish momentum by celebrating regular progress toward the vision.
CIO action: As an owner of the change, show nontechnical colleagues how IT is contributing to the progress, and help drive engagement by celebrating success regularly.

Principle 5: The case for change must be undisputed — that is, a ‘burning platform’ — and it must also be clear to all.
CIO action: Because IT represents such a large share of the transformation’s cost, help ensure that the case for change is crystal clear.

Most transformational changes today are enabled by IT. Therefore, CIOs should be the key catalysts of change. Understanding the key transformation principles and actions is a first step towards putting IT executives at the front of transformation and ensuring delivery of long term results, whatever the nature and size of the business.

Liz Benison is CSC's regional president for the UK and Ireland.