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As businesses find themselves in a period of accelerated and persistent technological change, the onus is increasingly on the IT leader to make sense of what’s happening and lead the business forward.

SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) is just the beginning. Around the corner are more profound changes involving automation, artificial intelligence, robotics and greater interconnectedness.

With this in mind, what core competencies and skills will the next generation of technology leaders need to leverage the new technology that’s coming in the next three to five years?

One trend that’s been picked up by many commentators is the way the IT role has grown more business-focused. Gunnar Menzel, VP and Chief Architect for Infrastructure Services at Capgemini, says this will only intensify going forward.

Menzel says, “Over the next couple of years corporate technology functions will move from a cost centre, that typically reports to a CFO, to a business-benefit centre where the CIO/CDO sits on the board. Corporate technology functions will also have to shift left – moving increasingly from running IT to planning and designing business solutions.”

He argues that digital is forcing IT to “grow up” and move from talking about technology in terms of acronyms - “SSD, FC and MHz” - to how they drive real business outcomes like “sales per customer” or “average basket size for a retailer”.

Technology leaders working in this new corporate technology function will have to understand three areas in order to take advantage of the new business models and technology out there, says Menzel.

Firstly, they will need to understand ‘real’ business: what the different business areas actually do and how they execute the different functions within the company.

Secondly, “they must understand how new technology can help the business to increase value and use this to drive innovation: own the solutions together with the business, as well as run IT.”

And thirdly, “the next generation of technology leaders need to understand what is possible and be seen as the leaders of change as the market evolves,” Menzel feels.

Customer-facing
Len Couture, analyst at 451 Research, sees customers or clients as a major influence on the changing IT role.

He explains: “Alignment with the needs of the external customers will be essential. In the digital economy, how you do business is as important competitively as what services and goods you provide. Corporate IT must drive the agenda of how an enterprise engages with its client. From the edge to the core, customers are demanding an ability to engage when and how they want. The only way to be successful is to have an IT team that drives value and not just efficiency.”

Couture adds, “IT leaders will need to move from knowing what the technologies they deploy do, to understanding how they impact the flow of commerce; not from a transactional approach but rather from a social/strategic position. They will need to have the skill of iteration and be comfortable with failure in short-term cycles. Innovation will be about speed and adaptability not about technology perfection. Being able to build relationships with their external client, partners and suppliers, will be key in building an adaptable technology environment.”

Tech innovation
Whilst a greater emphasis on customers and business will assist corporate IT leaders over the next few years, it’s also essential to understand emerging technologies, harnessing them to introduce innovation, argues Stuart Orr, Partner, Technology, Media & Entertainment and Telecommunications sector, at EY.

“With data being the engine behind business transformation, information technology is going to play a pivotal role as companies evolve to new agile business models. Instead of being limited to the role of enabler of a set strategy, the implementation of new technologies will set the course and determine the pace of change,” says Orr.

“So, the future CIO must be able to put technology issues high on the board’s agenda, discussing ambition and risk as an equal, as well as promoting new and innovative solutions, such as robotics, artificial intelligence and crowd-sourcing,” he says.

“They must also be a guardian for compliance, mapping out how new technologies and sourcing strategies can be implemented with an eye on security and privacy regulation,” Orr adds.

One additional way the future CIO could help transform the business is by making the workforce more agile and productive, says Accenture’s CIO, Andrew Wilson.

“At Accenture, our internal IT organisation is taking advantage of what we call the liquid workforce – flexible and agile enough to meet constantly changing demands from the business. It’s about creating a digitally-powered workforce and technology plays a huge role in that,” says Wilson.

He goes on to explain, “We are stepping away from the traditional workforce and roles. Accenture is focusing more on bridging experiences that bring workers with the same title into multiple roles across the company. When we assume the only constant is change, we can access critical skills more quickly, innovate faster, and operate more effectively.”

Wilson adds, “The most exciting times are when we put technology in the hands of our people: things that become part of global processes of sales, analytics and insights, like accounting and distribution. Within Accenture, we’ve established mobile, social and collaborative platforms that connect our employees and allow them to share ideas more easily than ever.”

Wilson says that as the role of technology changes, so does the role of the CIO. But an important question is how to stay in control of technologies that are constantly evolving.

“There are a lot of factors to consider. The CIO role is evolving into a combination of consultant, aggregator, technology buyer, technology partner and innovator while still very much an operator. The CIO must act as an internal technology consultant to the business as business leaders become more cognizant of how technology can be a competitive differentiator, and where their organisation is, in terms of current tech trends such as mobility, analytics and social collaboration.”

Transforming Processes
Thomas Lee-Warren, Director of the Technology Group at Royal Mail, feels that: “In the coming 3-5 years the corporate technology function is going to evolve almost beyond recognition. Key to this change will be the fourth revolution we see occurring today. Technology will change the way organisations are run and technology leaders should start adapting to these changes today to ensure long term success in the future.”

“Large corporates should be considering how to juggle the things they do best with the sheer work rate and the ability to pivot off start-ups. Large corporates have tremendous resources to call upon and strong processes to keep them on track. However, urgent attention needs to be given to overhauling the existing processes,” Lee-Warren says.

He adds, “Technology leaders must seek out their innovators, otherwise a business will find itself replacing clunky slow processes with slightly faster clunky processes and the opportunity to 'pivot' through insight has been lost. Unless these core processes are tackled, ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ by technology leaders, who wish to move to more agile techniques, will fail to achieve their intended outcome.”

Emma Collins, CBI Principal Policy Adviser, Digital Economy, concludes, “Businesses globally are in the throes of an extraordinary digital revolution that is transforming productivity and creating a new generation of winning companies. It’s vital that businesses in all sectors – from manufacturing to retail – truly understand digital technology’s potential, from the boardroom to the shop or factory floor.”

“And by harnessing the expertise of the generation at the heart of the digital revolution, firms will be better able to make the right investments for their digital future.”