Clock Speed

Ade McCormack, Founder, Digital Readiness Institute

It should be apparent that technology is developing at an exponential rate. The wheel was quite a breakthrough. A little later, we had the printing press. Today we have smartphones, printable body parts and synthetic biology.

The exponential nature of change, particularly at the latter end, is characterised by a rapid acceleration in clock-speed. Business and government are struggling to assimilate the latest advances, and this is having a bearing on societal stability. Businesses are offloading the associated pressures onto their staff, requiring them to work harder to ensure the organisation stays afloat. The arrival of intelligent technologies is placing a societal burden brought about by those displaced by AI and robots.

The problem is that businesses are behaving as if the rules of the game haven’t changed. So the exercise becomes one of maintaining the industrial era factory model but just add some technology steroids to speed it up. That’s not working. Many leaders are sold a story about the benefits of digital transformation, but they end up buying digitalisation. The problem is that a smarter, faster, cheaper tech-driven Titanic is still a Titanic. It’s time to accept that in many cases, the business model is not fit for purpose.

Similarly business education often points to the S-Curve as the standard organisational lifecycle model. It charts the life of a start-up – slow start, rapid growth, flattening / decline. The advice is to sense when the organisation is in the last phase and to then jump on a new S-Curve and start again. This linear approach to business is no longer fit for purpose. Businesses need to be running multiple business models in parallel. Thus the business is less like a factory and more like a portfolio of bets or experiments (think polymodal).

Similarly Gartner talks about the four common CTO personas:

  • Digital business leader
  • Business enabler
  • Chief operating officer of IT
  • IT innovator

Again this presumes that the organisation is in a single state and thus you choose the IT leader best suited to that state. With a polymodal business model approach, there will be as many states as there are business experiments.

This has profound implications for IT leaders. This polymodalism makes bimodal IT seem quaint and redolent of more innocent times.

So what are IT leaders to do in these increasingly uncertain and volatile times? One response is to pretend that the rules of the game have not changed and simply continue to quietly migrate your on-premise apps and infrastructure into the cloud. You might also support marketing in respect of developing new online channels to market and possibly even new data-driven services.

Depending on the sector within which you operate, this approach might see you through to retirement. However the future is not approaching us in a linear fashion, so that is a risky strategy. A cloud-based architecture won’t protect the organisation from the arrival of a disruptive business model that now in effect provides the market with a free alternative to your organisation’s offerings. A change in consumer sentiment or an unanticipated international pandemic similarly has the power to wipe out organisations that are reliant on one business model. Remember past success is no longer an indicator of future success. The era of synthetic certainty is over.

The other more daring approach is to lead the organisation’s digital charge. This is less about making everything an app and more about reengineering the business to thrive in the digital age. But that is not every IT leaders’ cup of tea. This takes you away from the comfort zone of servers, Gantt charts, code and ungrateful users. It requires you to become a tech-savvy business leader. If you are reporting directly to the CEO, then you are well placed to take on this new role. But sadly IT leadership is rarely found in the senior leadership team. This is a cause for reflection.

The arrival of the Chief Digital Officer appears to be the c-suite’s response to the IT function’s preference to keep out of the limelight. But that approach doesn’t appear to be working well.

The challenge for IT leaders aspiring to take the lead is that not only must they have business leadership capability, but they must be able to demonstrate that it was acquired in an uncertain and volatile theatre. Military leadership comes to mind. They must also be able to demonstrate that they can innovatively apply new technology to solving business challenges. And we mustn’t forget the need to be able to turn data into value and better organisational decisions.

Some IT leaders might well prize themselves on the fact that they no longer need to deal in the murky world of tech. This is understandable. In years gone by, IT leaders often found themselves having to give personal PC antivirus software advice to c-suite members during the middle of their pitch to become the Chief Innovation Officer. Back then, an association with tech was a c-suite career barrier.

Today, it’s a different story. Each of the polymodal experiments / bets the organisation needs to have on the boil will increasingly harness the power of ‘new’ new technologies and will likely in some capacity be turning data into value.

This might make the Chief Technology Officer a better fit than a pen-pushing Chief Information Officer. But those CIOs who have maintained their technology acumen and understand that the ‘I’ in CIO stands for information and not IT manager also have a fighting chance of leading the organisation in the digital age.

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