If there is one thing that makes IT people very uncomfortable it is an absence of data. In my experience (and apologies for the sweeping generalisation) IT people like facts - facts and logic. It is hardly surprising that as an industry it attracts people that are inclined this way. For as long as I can remember it has been an industry built on the fear of failure. The 99.999% rule has ruled with an iron rod. IT has to work – simple as that. And the definition of work has generally meant in real terms – not falling over.
Dave Aron, a Gartner fellow and a very smart man talks about the three Fs when considering technology investments. These are Fear, Fact and Faith. For most of the history of technology it has been fear that dominated investment decisions both by the CIO and the business– the fear of what would happen if you didn't upgrade, increase capacity, switch or outsource. Then as the understanding and knowledge around information technology increased, combined with the explosion of data and data analytics, it has moved and become about fact. Decisions based on solid data that create business cases with ROI that demonstrate categorically that it is the right decision. Fact is still solidly in the comfort zone and an easy cop out, no ROI means no approval.
Now however, as digital disruption really starts to impact industries (see AirBnB, Uber, Netflix, Amazon, etc. etc. etc.), you can no longer play it safe. Organisations have to re-invent IT to support digitisation and this is about faith. Making investment decisions based on creative thinking, hunches and focused on improving the experience. This is not about business cases or service reliability, this is about taking risks, be bold and make bold decisions that are based on ideas (sometimes even – God forbid – gut). Now it is about making investment decisions based on faith.
Over the last few months I have spent time with CIOs from across a range of different industries and with very different perspectives, but one thing is undeniable and that is that it is those who have embraced faith when making investment decisions that are in the organisations most ready and able to take on the disrupters head on.
One of these is Kevin Gallagher, CIO at Channel 4 television:
"Fundamentally these days if you cannot go forwards you will go backwards. As a company you have to remember what it is you are there to do and make decisions based on that. That might mean changing the way you operate quite substantially, but understanding the difference is critical. Take Kodak for example. Kodak forgot that it was a company that was about memories, not about film. It became so preoccupied with the method of delivery that it lost sight of its purpose and we know how that ended.
"Faith is not about taking massive leaps in the dark but it is about giving people time to explore new ideas and thinking differently. It's also about looking further than just your industry and learning from others about new ways to do things. If you are afraid of being first then you can only ever be a follower so it is a risk worth taking. No-one aspires to be a follower," Gallagher says.
One of the things I love about the Channel 4 approach is that it focuses on getting people involved from across the company. Because the workforce is so digitally native most of the ideas come out of what technology can do so technology is part and parcel of the process. They also understand that in an industry like media it is customer experience that is the primary area for innovation and the one where the most amount of difference can be made.
When you stand back and look at it you can argue that technology is now art as much as science and that is a fascinating thing partly because it means that you have to look at it in a totally different way. There will always be the side of it that is about operations and service levels, workflows and process optimisation. Now however there is a new side, which is about creativity, experience and engagement.
So this is where the challenge lies for today's CIO. There will always be plenty to do operationally. There will always be the CIO who says that he doesn't have time for innovation and new technology because they are far to busy keeping the lights on, ensuring the SAP upgrades are in place and that rolling out the latest Microsoft software is a major achievement. I would be lying if I said that my conversations over the last few months haven't included a few of those. I can understand it. Here you are on safe ground, firmly using Fear and the Fact to drive your investment decisions. Businesses have to shoulder their fair share of the blame for the reticence after all they have spent the last 30 years haranguing IT people about downtime, banging on about efficiencies and productivity and reducing costs. It is hardly surprising that today's CIO is so adverse to risk.
It is probably about time that businesses did a bit more empowering and a bit less haranguing, but fundamentally it comes down to this: organisations are having to embrace digital change and quickly. They need people to drive that digital change, show business leadership and take risks on new ideas. If it isn't you, the CIO, then they will find someone else and then you will be stuck forever more in the world of delivering the core IT operations, ERP, email and if you are lucky social collaboration. I can't honestly believe any CIO really wants that.