Put ‘IT’ back into conversations about dig-IT-al

Put ‘IT’ back into conversations about dig-IT-al

For a company to truly transform it requires greater collaboration than ever before. If traditionally siloed departments continue to have their own agenda, they will be unable to deliver the joined-up experience our customers now expect.

IT needs to be engaged in the digital conversation with the C-suite from the word go – because your technology and data is the enabler for your digital vision.

In this interview, our Technology Partner, Salim Sheikh talks about the evolving role of the IT department (and the CIO role) and how a partnership must be formed with the business in order to deliver digitally-led business transformation.

Salim discusses:

  • The evolving role of the IT department
  • Why the IT department can get left out of the digital transformation conversation
  • Why early collaboration is essential

Sophie: Salim can you introduce yourself and your role at DWG?

I’m Salim Sheikh, the technology partner at Digital Works Group. In terms of my background, I’ve got over 20 years’ experience in IT and undertaking lots of transformation. I’ve worked in a number of roles, including Chief Architect, CTO, CIO, and worked within both SME and blue-chip companies. I’ve also had the good fortune of being able to do that across many countries, both the UK, Europe, and the Middle East – including UAE.

Sophie: Would you say that the IT department is under greater pressure than ever?

IT and IT departments are absolutely under pressure, and that is growing daily. I think everyone’s aware of this idea of the fourth industrial revolution and constant technology disruption which is affecting both business and consumers. This is giving people in business a lot more choice than they can perhaps handle.

IT departments and CIOs are expected to just react quickly to these new emerging technologies. That they somehow already understand and are on top of new concepts such as AI, Machine Learning, Robotic Process Automation (or RPA) and IoT.

There is also additional pressure from the huge explosion of technology vendors. There are a huge amount of options for businesses both big and small, but this puts a lot of pressure on the people involved in outsourcing managed services.

Sophie: How has the role of the IT department changed over the last few years?

IT used to be seen as the department who that ‘keeps the lights on’. It very often had a service provider type role, operating as a cost centre to people in the business. Most IT departments have traditionally reported to a CFO, who is obviously going to be very focused on cost.

In the last few years, whether you’re a CIO or CTO, the expectation is that you have to be more business savvy. They must be more proactive, respond faster to business demand, or in the first place actually better understand what the business demand is so that they can provide the right type of advice and guidance.

This means almost acting as an internal consultancy to explain to your business peers what the technology is or what the right fit is for the business problem or opportunity that the business is toying with.

Previously it was acceptable for IT to serve individual lines of business or departments. The whole organisation is now looking for integrated solutions that truly enable ALL areas of the business. The modern IT worker and CIO’s, in particular, have to be more “tech aware”, along with an appreciation of customer experience. They need to ask ‘how can I better serve that technology and the data underneath it?’ and take a 360-degree view on what’s going on because IT is so rooted in all areas of the business.

Sophie: In your experience, is the average IT department getting involved early enough in the digital transformation journey?

What I’ve seen is a lot of CIOs and CTOs more involved in a transactional relationship. Now digital has become a business strategy, and CIOs and CTOs absolutely need to be involved in the ideation stages, so that they can influence the vision and get involved in the strategic planning.

My personal experience in the last two years is that people in business need support from IT around target operating models. Some organisations are beginning to appreciate that they do need a CIO or CTO, and potentially people sometimes from outside – who have the right level of technical expertise to inform and develop the operating model – and then drive the business at the right pace, with the appropriate level of funding. Having a CIO and CTO involved at the start of that journey is absolutely critical.

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Sophie: What are the risks if you don’t involve IT early enough?

Without involving the CIO and CTO in the digital strategy, there’s a real risk of overlooking things like security-related concerns, the integrity of the technology architecture that already exists, (whether it’s legacy systems, new modern systems or both) and data issues.

Before digital became mainstream, people were traditionally focused on good old fashioned engineering, analyses, and leveraging existing assets. Today, a CIO’s challenge centres on the plethora of available technologies; cloud computing, SaaS solutions (including variations such as PaaS and IaaS), mobile apps and ‘off the shelf’ type solutions. Consequently, the risk of “technology debt” creeps up while further complicating “business systems integration” as new technology is layered on top of the existing technology architecture.

Unchecked, these risks may impact the business by affecting revenue generating and customer-centric services that previously supported customer loyalty, brand differentiation and profits.

Sophie: Should there be greater collaboration between IT and the C-suite to improve digital education across the whole organisation?

There are lots of educational opportunities out there. The C-suite and management layers need to educate themselves with the CIOs and CTOs engaged alongside them.

My experience is that digital transformation frequently ends up becoming a ‘bottom-up’ activity. The ‘hands-on-keyboard’ IT workers (who are often tasked with configuring, operating and maintaining IT solutions and services) are out there educating themselves – often at a very granular level – without any real guidance or direction.

CIOs need to find ways to align any form of education back to the goals of the organisation to ensure the business is supported and empowered in the right way.

If the CIOs are able to bridge that gap between the C-suite level and what’s happening at the grassroots, then I think there’s an opportunity to start to educate the organisation properly around why they need to do things, and what the business value and benefit is.

Sophie: How could the situation be improved?

Communication is critical. CIOs and CTOs need to take the lead and engage in conversation with their business peers.

Once people understand their role and the part that they play, they are empowered to do more. I think the overall success of digital transformation comes down to good communication. I’ve witnessed projects fail because things hadn’t been communicated, and it affects morale in particular. People need to be engaged and understand the value they are providing.

CIOs and CTOs also need to invest time and work closely with HR professionals to develop, nurture and retain the right types of talent. Digital transformation from an IT point of view now extends to emerging technologies – for example, Data Science and AI. If the right type of IT leadership is afforded to CIOs and CTOs, then there are many opportunities to enable the business to be more innovative, efficient and competitive in new exciting ways – by augmenting people and technology to create jobs rather than force redundancies.

Sophie: How about the trend to outsource IT. What are risks and benefits, and how do you get the balance right?

I’ve seen this a number of times and experienced it in one of my recent engagements.

The organisation was very keen to outsource the more mundane operational support type activities that overwhelmed IT. So we said let’s push out some activities to carefully selected partners who would be governed and controlled – monitoring tickets, experiences, call desk and problem ticket volumes etc. – so they would operate as an extension of the business.

This allowed for a lot more attention to IP creation, ideation and innovation opportunities. Refocusing people onto projects involving research and development or learning and education around emerging technology opportunities and how they could be applied to the business.

The catalyst started with myself and Heads of IT coming together and developing the new target operating model that would balance the outsourcing of operations, alongside the business needs of the organisation, and driving innovation.

Developing centres of excellence is also a great way forward. Thinking about how the business can evolve an ecosystem which includes talented people on the inside, alongside expertise from key advisors and partners outside the business who can collaborate and educate each other to develop the IP of the organisation and kick-start innovation.

Sophie: Salim, what are your key pieces of advice be to any CIO looking to improve business and IT alignment?

I think CIOs and CTOs have to be bold.

They have to take the lead and begin those conversations with the business. If they don’t do that, then the issue of business and IT alignment is going to persist and impact on any kind of digital transformation success.

CIOs and CTOs need to become leaders not just supporters. They must drive everything to do with technology opportunity.

The second point is communication and talking the language of business. A gap often exists here, which needs to be bridged. CIOs and CTOs need to build internal relationships within the business to understand what people are doing across different functions, for example by using secondments, or joint projects. This cuts both ways too –with IT encouraging others to come in and see what they do and improve understanding. This is almost like internal marketing – highlighting the value IT adds and what they are capable of doing.

These days there is a lot of focus on agile delivery techniques. We also need to spend time reflecting and look at lessons learned once we’ve delivered something before we move on to the next project.

Lastly, IT departments must nurture internal skills and invest in education to be future ready.

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