There is no doubt that technology is becoming more important to how we do business; companies across a wide range of sectors are using technology to redefine markets, create new revenue streams, enhance the customer experience and transform business and operating models. This is digital business and eventually it will come to every industry and every organisation. And companies that cannot adapt to this new way of doing business will struggle to survive.
Yet the claims regularly made by certain analysts and some vendors that every business needs to become a technology company or that every organisation needs to become a software business are misleading. Organisations have to focus on their core business, which for the vast majority is not technology or software. What is true is that, in the digital world this vast majority will find that their business models, products and services are enabled or enhanced with technology and software. But that does not make them a technology or software business per se. Having knowledge of what technology is available, what it can do and how it can be used to create value will be essential but that knowledge does not make the organisation a technology or software business.
The same principle applies to the role that IT leaders and their teams can play in the digital world: CIOs also need to focus on the core business, its customers, products and services, and use their knowledge of technology to identify opportunities to create value for the organisation. In a recent article published by our sister CIO title in the US, Time Warner Cable's CIO, Sven Gerjets, summarised this approach: "Once you understand the business you're in and stop thinking like an IT person, you can start innovating in areas that make sense."
In other words if you are an IT leader you need to start thinking more like a business leader that just happens to know a lot about IT and, more importantly, knows how technology can be used be used to enable new products, services and ways of working. This type of person is becoming increasingly valuable to organisations as they wrestle with the challenges of the digital world. Chief Digital Officers are usually tasked with using technology to solve business problems, generate revenue and enhance the customer experience. They get the role because they understand the business and its products, services and customers. And they also understand how to exploit technology and can articulate the value of IT in terms of business outcomes, revenue and profit.
But thinking less like an IT person and more like a business leader can be difficult for many IT professionals who may have spent their entire career to-date developing their skills and gaining experience as an IT leader. Indeed, thinking and acting like an IT person is exactly what has enabled many IT executives to progress to their current positions. But times have changed and organisations have different needs and expectations of their IT leaders. And, as we have seen from the growth of the CDO role and with other executives becoming more involved in technology decisions, organisations will work round their existing technology leaders if they cannot make the switch from thinking like an IT person to thinking like a business person.
So how does a technical person start to think like a business leader? In some ways the challenge is similar to learning a new language where the ultimate measure of fluency is when the individual thinks in the new language instead of having to translate to/from their mother tongue. In the same way the aim of CIOs in the digital world is to think in business terms by default and to only switch from business to technology when necessary.
Many people opt for a formal approach to leaning a new language by signing-up for a course and even obtaining a qualification in their chosen language. This approach can also work for technology professionals wanting to learn about business and having a formal qualification will certainly help with establishing their credibility as a business leader. But formal study is not always necessary and many people develop fluency in a new language using the following three steps:
1. Read and listen
The first step to learning a new language is to read in that language and to listen to it being spoken. For IT leaders this means reading articles, papers, documents and books about business in general and about the organisation for which they work and the industry in which it operates. And it also means listening to discussions about the wider organisation, paying attention when other functions and non-IT issues are being discussed in meetings, and attending conferences and events about their industry and other functional areas (e.g. marketing, finance, operations, etc).
2. Speak and write
The next step is to start speaking the new language at every opportunity. In other words, as soon as the IT leader has started developing an understanding of the wider business in terms of how it operates, how it makes its money and any specific terminology it uses, they should use this new knowledge and vocabulary whenever they speak or write. So, regardless of whether they are talking to IT staff or colleagues from other functions, or whether they are writing documents for IT consumption or for circulation to the wider business, they should always be trying to use business language to communicate.
3. Spend time "abroad"
The final step to becoming fluent in a new language is to spend as much time as possible with other people that already speak that language, which is best achieved by spending time in a country where that language is spoken. In other words IT leaders need to get out of the IT department and spend as much time as possible with other functions, customers, partners and suppliers talking about the business, products, services, experiences, and so forth.
The top CIOs - those that have made the transition from technology leader to business leader - already think, speak and act in business terms. They do not behave or sound like techies. When they talk about technology it is in the context of using IT to solve business problems, generate revenue and enhance the customer experience. They represent the modern CIO; the type of IT leader that businesses need to compete in digital markets. On the other hand, CIOs that still talk and think like an IT person risk being bypassed or replaced by someone that is fluent in the language used by the rest of the business.