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As firms navigate their way through digital transformation, the IT department and the CIO are being pushed ever harder to drive the agenda. It’s only natural that IT takes on this central role, but to do so, IT has to change.

As with any transformation there are growing pains. IT needs to balance existing operations with new, more disruptive projects, and shift from legacy line of business (LOB) apps on-premise to apps powered by analytics, AI and machine learning, frequently running in the cloud. Most of all, IT culture needs to become less reactive and more innovative. It’s not just about managing and implementing, but also about generating ideas that can benefit the business.

Here the CIO needs to lead the way, promoting a culture of innovation within their teams and providing situations where ideas can flourish and be developed into services and code.

One approach is to use workshops and challenges. For instance, Trainline CIO Mark Holt has instigated an annual Summer of Craft, where the company’s software engineers get stuck into four workshops in a week on engineering topics before spending the Friday working on their own projects and open-source development. Trainline also sponsors and participates in HackTrain: a weekend where 200 developers ride trains across the UK, France and Germany, trying to design and build new features to enhance the rail experience.

The results? Amongst several, the development of Google voice apps that use predictive analytics to answer common customer questions and prototype tools that use crowdsourcing to discover seat availability.

Shell is another example. Here, CIO Clare Patterson hosted a machine learning competition to predict gas prices, with 25 teams taking part. This not only encouraged the organisation’s developers to go hands-on with the new technology, but also generated insights into the challenges involved. The experience has informed new proof-of-concept (POC) applications with potential across the organisation.

Other firms are creating their own internal start-ups or innovation units, building teams with fewer day-to-day obligations and so more scope to invent and disrupt. Dankse Bank, for example, has an internal team designed to build disruptive solutions and new customer experiences that might stretch beyond what you’d expect from a bank. Some companies as a whole embrace this startup mentality. At AstraZeneca, CIO David Smoley has driven what he calls ‘a move away from a risk averse, siloed and slow-moving company’ to one that is ‘much more open to taking smart risks and being a bit like a small biotech as opposed to a large, multinational pharma company.’

These shifts bring challenges in terms of skills. Recruiting graduates and experienced workers with expertise in AI, machine learning and the Internet of Things is tough, particularly in an industry where education often lags behind innovation.

At Hitachi Consulting they’ve invested heavily in graduates from a wider range of disciplines. As EMEA Vice President Chris Saul notes ‘While there is no better alternative to experienced hires with deep industry and technical digital expertise, the reality is that these people are very hard to find’. Graduates from other disciplines, in Saul’s words, ‘create energy and challenge that can be lacking in more experienced hires.’

Internal reskilling and training are equally crucial, enabling existing employees to develop new skills and enabling undiscovered talents to rise up. Gartner Research Director, Andy Rowsell-Jones, has talked about the need for CIOs to build what he calls ‘a farm system for new skills – an epic training for what’s missing.’ 

‘You have to create this raw material; you can’t buy it’ he says, noting that ‘the same is true of innovation.’

Perhaps the most radical step CIOs can take, however, is to not just look within the IT team. By embrace low-level or no-code development platforms like Salesforce Lightning and breaking through the usual corporate silos, they can harness talent and ideas from other business units and support a new breed of ‘citizen developer’.

This, in Gartner’s definition ‘is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.’

This sounds scary – and it can be – but by taking advantage of highly stable, highly manageable cloud-based platforms and education platforms, like Salesforce’s Trailhead, IT can guide and assess. And, after all, how can you innovate if you won’t try a new approach?