George V. Hulme discusses the state of CIO Relevancy and Transformational IT with Tim Crawford
Facing increased consumerization of technology, more autonomy by business units in choosing and deploying IT, citizen developers and increasingly affordable cloud software services, IT departments and the office of the CIO are under more pressure than ever before. To get some answers about how smart IT leaders are ensuring their relevancy, we turned to Tim Crawford, an internationally recognized expert on enterprise IT transformation, cloud computing, IT relevancy and innovation.
Crawford has held CIO and other senior IT roles with global organizations including Konica Minolta/All Covered, Stanford University, Knight-Ridder, Philips Electronics and National Semiconductor. He regularly speaks at industry conferences on the topics of strategy, applications, services, infrastructure and operations. Crawford also serves as an adviser to global enterprises, government agencies, venture capital firms and startups across numerous industries.
Hulme: There is a lot of conversation around the relevancy of IT, and it escalated as rogue apps, IT and even citizen developers have taken root in many enterprises. And many are questioning the relevance of the IT organization in the years ahead. What is your take on the current state of IT relevancy?
Crawford: I think we have to separate the types of IT organizations. There are those that are very technology-focused. They are focused on the latest, greatest whiz-bang, bright, shiny object. These are the folks that look at IT for IT’s sake. They look at IT as the linchpin in the organization and work under a command-and-control management style. Those organizations are really going to struggle. We’re already seeing this happen. We’re already seeing CIOs of that caliber getting removed from their posts. We’re seeing that type of IT organization get marginalized significantly in terms of its strategic value to the organization.
A good way to test this is to ask someone from elsewhere in that business, “What role does IT play? Are they the ones that you call when the Internet is broken or you need to get a projector fixed or an application doesn’t work? Or, are they the folks that you call when you’re trying to figure out a new strategic initiative for the company as a whole and you want IT at the table? Or, is IT coming to you with different business objectives that actually are substantial and are not about technology?”
I would differentiate between that—what I call the traditional—IT organization and the transformational.
The transformational IT organization, on the other hand, is very much in demand and there are very few IT leaders that understand it. There also are very few business folks, so folks outside of IT, that have that level of expectation of IT; that transformational expectation, that business-centric expectation. And the best way to think about a transformational IT org is they are a business organization first that happens to have responsibility for IT. So, a CIO that is very business-oriented as opposed to tech-oriented, that also happens to have responsibility for IT.
Back to your fundamental question, I would argue that the traditional, not the transformational, but the traditional CIO and the traditional IT organization is very much in decline. The transformational IT organization and the transformational CIO is very much in demand and that trend is something that we are just starting to scratch the surface on.
Hulme: With that in mind, how do you move your organization to a successful transformational IT organization?
Crawford: That is the $64,000 question and the No. 1 issue is in understanding culture, understanding people, understanding organization. And notice, technology was not one of those key attributes.
The problem is not a tech problem; the problem to transform is not a tech problem. Quite often you have leaders that are somewhat sedentary. That’s one category of folks. Another category of folks is they just don’t know; they don’t know how to get from here to there and they need some help. But then you also have those folks that are very much of the mindset this has worked well for us for the past 10, 20 years and that’s what we’ll continue to do.
But, for those folks that truly want to transform, there are a couple of challenges that they need to be able to get around. One is inertia. There’s a phenomenal amount of inertia within an IT organization that heads you down the status quo path; the traditional status quo path. On the other hand, if you understand the organizational shift and you understand that culture needs to change, then you will take steps in order to do that. And some of that may be the language that gets used, it may be how the IT organization is organized; just the fundamentals of organization. We no longer have an apps org and an ops org or an infrastructure org. They’re all one organization and they’re centered around other functions. And that gets to be a little more specific to the nature of the business and what works for that team.
There’s a lot of personalization that comes into play. For example, pick you and I. We may have very similar perspectives on many different things, but we’re also two very different individuals. And so the way that you would handle George vs. Tim, and the way you would engage them might be very different. And so there’s a lot of personal work that needs to be done. But it starts with a vision, it starts with a direction and it starts with a game plan or road map to be able to achieve that.
Hulme: It would strike me that enterprises outside of the IT organization—enterprises that have transformational IT—are going to be a lot better off in their ability to compete than those that don’t have good IT leadership because they may end up floundering.
Crawford: Absolutely. Without a doubt, that is absolutely true. In order to compete moving forward, you absolutely need a transformational CIO and an IT organization that is of similar mindset.
Now, to get from here to there, because, remember most enterprises said, “Hey we’re not starting fresh. We’re not an Uber, we’re not an Airbnb where we’re just creating this brand new IT organization where we can pick and choose the people. We have legacy culture, we have legacy systems, we have legacy thinking. We’re not starting out fresh; we’re not starting out new.” Enterprises don’t have that luxury.
And, this is where we often get into this conversation around bimodal IT. Well, to do that, do you create a startup within the IT organization that focuses more on the transformational aspect and then have a different group that handles the legacy aspect? From experience from the organizations that I’ve seen that have made an attempt, a solid attempt, not just a half-assed attempt but a solid attempt at bimodal IT, they have struggled or failed miserably.
Hulme: At doing bimodal? Why do you think that is?
Crawford: At doing bimodal. The reason for that is because a lot of that has to do with the fact that IT is an incredibly complex and integrated system; you know if I can use system in a more generic term as opposed to technology. And so, think about it. You’ve got your systems of record that might be in the legacy camp, but you’ve also got systems of engagement that might be in the startup camp. The systems of engagement still have to connect to the systems of record.
So how do you start to make those connections and forget about technology for a minute. Now you’ve got legacy folks that are looking at the startup folks going, “How come they get to do all the cool stuff and we get stuff with this legacy?”
We do have to be a little more mindful that, yes, there are different needs within an organization, but to create more silos, which is what many organizations have tried to do when they’ve tried bimodal, just creates an incredibly more complex problem and takes the organization in the direction away from where we want to go. Especially if you believe in the value of DevOps, for example.
Now, I’m not saying that bimodal is completely bad and should be thrown out, but there needs to be a very mindful way in which to leverage it. And, at some point, as part of your vision, as part of your road map, you need a means to bring that all back together again.
Hulme: So, what is an answer to that? Legacy IT, because some of it’s just not going to go away overnight.
Crawford: You have to divide and conquer. I mean if you try and take the entire IT portfolio in one big bite, that’s the equivalent of the old adage of eating the elephant all at once.
You can’t do that. I mean, you didn’t build that IT system—the people, the org structure, the technology, the applications—overnight. It took time to put that together. And much of how it’s built is institutional knowledge. It’s not documented anywhere. It sits in George’s head. It sits in Tim’s head. And then what happens when Tim leaves the organization and then something breaks or something doesn’t work? Oh no! Well, we don’t know how to fix it. We now have to re-solve that problem all over again because it was in Tim’s head and Tim’s not here anymore.
So, you have to divide and conquer. I use the methodology that I’ve developed over the years to do that. To bring some clarity to the areas that require more focus. To get to a position where you can take advantage of newer methodologies and newer technologies like cloud, like containers and some of the new AppDev methodologies, you have to understand what you have and then you have to have a means in which to pick apart the pieces. So you might say, you might take the ripe, low-hanging fruit and say, “You know what? Okay, just because we have file sharing on-prem today in our own data center doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do that moving forward.” Yes, we’re a regulated industry. But there are mature solutions that allow us to audit documents and understand where documents go today on cloud systems. So, let’s go leverage this cloud storage service. Let’s move that out. Great, we just lopped off a huge amount of storage and file servers.
After that is completed successfully, you move on to a new phase, perhaps you don’t have to run an Exchange server in your environment anymore. There’s nothing unique about it. Yes, you configured the hell out of it. Yes, you couldn’t replicate exactly all those configurations, but do you really need to? And, this kind of thinking is actually a very mature way of thinking compared to where a lot of organizations are today.
Hulme: You may be bringing old thinking forward that is not necessary anymore.
Crawford: Exactly, and that’s part of this theme. A lot of that thinking is what hinders us moving forward.
A lot of that legacy thinking gets pulled forward and this is one of the reasons why I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Moving forward, it would almost help everyone if we forget everything we’ve learned up until this point. I know that’s incredibly counterintuitive, but in many ways legacy thinking is what is holding us back—that thinking that we’ve always done things this way, so we’ll do it this way moving forward.
Note that a common question that gets asked by IT leaders when you want to bring something new and innovative to the table, and this used to drive me batty as I was coming up through rank and file of IT. It was when the CIO would ask, “Tell me who else has done this in our industry at our size.” Now, if you think about it, when the CIO says that, what they’re looking for is stability. They want some validation to know that things are going to be okay.
Now, let’s change the CIO with the CEO. If you go to a CEO with a new innovative thing, is the CEO going to ask you who’s done it in our industry at our size before they can seriously consider it? Or they going to be looking at it and go, “Ooh, this could be a differentiation opportunity.”
I don’t care who’s done it before. Doesn’t matter. I want to know what people want and how we can deliver something that’s of value to them. And if it’s a different mindset that is about embracing the opportunity.
Hulme: What are some indicators organizations should look for to see if they are thinking transformational, or with a legacy mindset?
Crawford: One key indicator that I look for when I get asked to go in and assess organizations is experimentation. Is experimentation not just allowed, but encouraged? Now, experimentation is a good indicator, but it’s no more than an indicator, but it shows a mindset and an openness for new thinking. So, when you start talking about how do you determine if an organization is innovative? OK. Are they trying things? Are they failing? If they’re failing, great, because that indicates that they’re at least trying something and they’re not afraid to fail. Most times in IT organizations, failure is a big no-no; you want stability, you want an outcome that you’re expecting. Obviously, you have to kind of take that statement with the right perspective? You can’t just fail, fail, fail. The business still has to be able to operate. But you can’t be afraid to fail, either.