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As technology leaders in enterprise, CIOs are always on the lookout for new technologies that could enhance their business or disrupt their industry. However, embracing them isn’t easy. CIOs understand the pressure to balance innovation with existing operations, and to experiment without excessive risk. Yet there are strategies that can help, with these six steps a great starting point.

Stay on top of the megatrends

Vision is a prerequisite for the best CIOs, but if you don’t know what’s coming over the horizon, you can’t see how it might impact or transform your business.  Take a look at Gartner’s hype cycle for 2019 and you’ll find technologies and trends, like automation, machine learning, edge computing and VR, that fit into what it calls ‘the intelligent digital mesh’. These technologies might not seem relevant to your business, but they could be – and if you aren’t aware of them you won’t find out.

Take Carlsberg CTO Sarah Haywood as an example. Beer might not seem a high-tech product, but Haywood told CIO.co.uk that “we are looking at ways in which technologies can disrupt the brewing industry and how we ensure we are leading from the front.” In competitive industries, it pays to be ahead of the curve, not lagging behind.

Establish a leadership culture

The last few years have seen CIOs move from a purely technology-focused role to one with a wider remit. As Jacky Wright, Chief Digital and Information Officer for HMRC puts it, “we need to be a business-led leader. A leader who is focused on the business outcomes, understanding the impact of technology to achieve the outcomes.”

Wright also feels that CIOs need to sell their vision, “espousing the art of the possible and taking their organisations on a journey.” This means not just having a voice at senior level but using it.

Defining the business value of technology

Part of that is clarifying the business value of emerging technologies. How could they enhance the business? What will they optimise? How will they improve the bottom line?

As CIO, Alan Hill has led Exeter University through its digital transformation, explaining that "the university has recognised the centrality of digital services in its offer to students and to the research community."

“It all feeds up such that when we're asking for a capital investment” he says, “they understand it's not just Alan's list of good ideas. These are business-led initiatives with us absolutely up close and personal with the business owners and helping them understand what's the art of the possible."

Road test products – and fail fast

Another way forward is to trial emerging technologies, finding out how they work, what they can do and where the pitfalls lie. Pilot schemes and small but practical projects can be particularly effective; if they succeed, you have a story to inspire with. If they fail, fail fast and quietly and you have the space to learn from your mistakes. As Jacky Wright says, there has to be “a balance between taking a risk where you’re not going to bring down an organisation, but taking a risk to learn and improve on that for the purposes of delivering something in an agile way.” Failure is fine as long as people feel comfortable failing and can recover.

Find the balance between innovation and tolerable risk

This in turn means understanding risks, communicating with teams in the business units to find out which are tolerable and which are not. This also helps build support for change and ensure that projects based on emerging technology are properly adopted. Sometimes, that’s a question of perception. As Fatima Zada, CIO of Harvey Nichols puts it, innovation is “a way to move forward by growing and laying foundations, allowing you to move in the right direction.” However, she adds,  “innovation is often associated with risk and failure, which requires you to help change this perception.” Risks need to be respected, but not allowed to govern what you do.

Use the talent inside and outside of your organisation

Emerging technologies won’t have any impact without the commitment and ideas of those inside it. On the one hand, companies looking to drive technological change will the talent to enable it. At the insurance firm, Charles Taylor, for example, CIO Jason Sahota launched a three-year graduate programme to pull in and develop talent capable of running with disruptive new technologies.

Yet there may also be talent lying untapped within the existing organisation, whether that means IT teams who could be moved from operations to new projects or workers in other business units with an enthusiasm for technology – even ‘citizen developers.’ In the words of Unilever CIO, Jane Moran, “the best ideas come from the most junior people in the organisation. You need to create the operating model so that everyone in your technology organisation has a voice.”