I recently had the pleasure of delivering a digital leadership workshop to the top team of a Fortune 50 technology player in Cannes. Located opposite the home of the famous film festival, it brought to mind the greats of the big screen; those who rose above the ranks to master their craft and have it acknowledged in a most public way.

In between day dreaming, our discussions focused on a number of critical digital era phenomena that are changing the nature of everything. We noted that while digital is moving centre stage in most organisations, the CIO and the IT function are typically not.

This is a serious problem for the enterprise IT industry, because the CIO is the most critical part of the ecosystem. The CIO is in effect an adapter between what the industry sells and what the market consumes. A malfunctioning electrical adapter will render useless even the greatest appliance. The trend towards the IT spend making its way to the consumers via departments beyond the IT function should be a concern for all parties in the ecosystem.

Some kneejerk tech players will simply dump the CIO and pursue the CMO or whoever has money to spend. What they soon discover is that these CxOs, while buyers of IT services, do not relish the prospect of being sold features by account managers who have no idea why their offerings are of potential interest.

It is my view that to optimise the IT industry ecosystem, we need to make the CIO the interface for all technology-related services. It is also a matter of governance. But as we know, the nature of being a CIO is morphing, and not every CIO feels comfortable about the new expectations, particularly when the old expectations are still expected.

Here is a way forward that will both reduce your workload, thus freeing up cognitive capacity for more CIO 2.0 activities. And make you more strategically relevant to the organisation, to boot. The approach can be encapsulated in two words: 'Ask why'.

The problem with being a hamster on an ever-accelerating wheel is that your primary focus is on keeping up. There is little time to question the rationality to the requests imposed on you by the business. You may have read a few 'IT alignment' books and actually believe that the users are king and doing what is asked of you is called good service.

I strongly encourage you to challenge everything that is asked of you, within reason. Demanding to know why the users insist on having a working network would be taking my advice too far.

However, often systems and services are asked for where the request:

  • Cuts across the business strategy.
  • Replicates what already exists.
  • Feels like there is a technology vendor ventriloquist sitting very close by, wearing a surgical glove.

There are a number of benefits to asking the question:

  • Money will not be wasted.
  • You develop a more intimate understanding of the users' needs, and how they map onto the corporate imperatives (or not).
  • Your IT function moves from build / break-fix to a more business advisory role.
  • You can provide board level feedback in terms of what you are learning in respect of how the business strategy is being interpreted.
  • It preserves both the business and technology architectures of the organisation.

At first this might seem akin to the supermarket checkout assistant refusing to sell the customer the industrial-sized container of low grade chocolate, on the basis that it will damage their health. So expect pushback. It would be wise get the CEO on-board before you challenge the users.

But let's imagine this exercise hasn't given rise to being banished from the checkout, coupled with a demotion back into the warehouse (aka data centre abyss). Your challenging behaviour has become an organisational habit. Money is being saved. Security breaches are dropping. The CEO feels as if she is on top of a very significant element of spend.

Now it's time to ramp it up. For phase two you will need to internalise three words: 'Ask why not'. We live in an age where technology 'toys' very quickly become disruptive 'threats' and soon after 'table stakes'. It makes a lot of sense for the IT function to be the organisation that introduces the business to what these new technologies can do. Alternatively, the business can wait until it discovers what these technologies can do to it in the hands of competitors.

'Why not', I believe, is the destiny for the IT function. Rather than reactive supplier management, the game becomes proactive demand creation. Showing the users how 3D printing, augmented reality and so on could turn the organisation from 'prey in waiting' to predator, will be much appreciated by the leadership team. The CEO will soon start to perceive you as a co-creator of strategy, rather than a functional operative.

These little words might even result in you developing celebrity status among your boardroom peers and the users. As word gets around, your 'why not' mantra will become known by both your CIO peers and the whole IT industry ecosystem.

Who knows, you could find yourself nominated for the tech sector's equivalent of the Palme D'Or?!