One of the hottest executive suite titles to have these days — even more so than a decade ago – is that of the Chief Information Officer. The CIO is one of the important hubs of decision-making across today’s organizations and I spend a good amount of my time speaking to them, listening to what challenges they face and how those challenges have changed since the role came into its real glory days about ten years ago. As the evolution of technology has increased its impact across today’s organizations, the role of the CIO has had to evolve along with it. Many of the CIOs I speak with are now struggling with how to address one massive challenge that is impacting almost every company in operation today: Big Data.
While the world of data has increased both in volume and its speed of creation, I would argue that the role of the CIO hasn’t been proportionally supported. Today’s CIOs are looking for the strategies, solutions and technologies that can remedy the Big Data challenge, but do they have the support internally to do so? The challenges facing the CIO actually serve as a good barometer for many other areas of the company (and the industry for that matter) when it comes to Big Data. If the CIO is struggling, it’s a good bet that the rest of the organization is struggling too – and sometimes, unknowingly. The key is finding a way to execute the most informed strategy by using as many relevant pieces of data as you have within your organization so that each and every decision is impactful. No small task in today’s day and age.
Recently I attended a small, private conference hosted by one of the world’s largest banks where I was able to hear one of the most powerful CIOs in the financial world describe his operation. The event was a major eye-opener and a catalyst for change in my mind. While I was able to see the power and undeniable importance of the role the CIO holds, it left me convinced that the increasing amount of data being funneled into our world’s most sophisticated organizations is on a collision course with the other priorities of a CIO. If a coherent strategy isn’t put into place to leverage all this data, much or most of the value this new resource offers will be squandered. Big data is built on a simplifying assumption – that data is free. Unfortunately, at scale, even small numbers add up. Yes, data is vastly cheaper to store and compute than it was a decade ago, but we are asking CIOs to store orders of magnitude more data than before and make use of it. And although the value of this data goes up the more people use it, so do the costs to support end users. The result is a natural incentive for CIOs to focus on a few large projects that touch a small number of people (but can visibly justify value) vs. broadly enabling an organization where the value is harder to see than the support costs.
As a result, more and more corporate IT departments are no longer involving everyone in the overall decision-making process regarding data. The goal seems to be finding a way to get control of all of these moving parts so that they can be simplified. In particular, limit the number of people within organizations who are involved with data capture and management, and let the IT folks focus on a few big signature projects. But I disagree with this approach because I believe it will lead companies to limiting innovation by limiting investment to only a few large projects that can be easily controlled and monitored.
Is this the only way? If it means going on the defensive, saving money rather than enhancing performance, focusing on resource management rather than being strategic, and clutching control rather than empowering employees… I think it’s time to change our perspective and find an alternative approach.
I am always intrigued by how many organizations find themselves redefining terms during times like this. When language is used that seems self-evident, once you concentrate on its context it becomes apparent that the words being used often meant just the opposite of where we have evolved with them in today’s usage. When you see evidence of this, it is often a sign that perspective has gotten a little out of whack.
For instance, during that conference I referenced earlier, several people spoke of “the cloud”, but it became apparent that they weren’t talking about Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and the public cloud… but rather the private, proprietary ‘cloud’ built and serviced by their own private organizations. When the conversation turned to IT’s role in supporting the organization and its success, we were actually talking about managing its infrastructure – i.e., getting email delivered and keeping laptops working – rather than being a strategic weapon or becoming a revenue or marketing engine.
How can challenged CIO’s and IT departments tackle the increasing split between the desire to be strategic, and the simple need to keep the lights on? I happen to believe that there is a better approach that results in preserving the role of the CIO for what it was and is meant to be while expanding the leadership bench to incorporate a role that can attend to the expanded technology needs of the organization.
IT departments cannot convince everyone in the enterprise of the validity of their argument that control and cost containment are the highest priorities. Many employees, especially those in positions of power in marketing and sales, know from experience that information (especially about customers) is critically important to what they do, that it needs to be captured in volume, separated from the everyday tasks of running the company, and given its own power structure inside the organization.
While I believe in the power of the CIO and the essential role each CIO plays within today’s organizations, I also see the rise of a new and complementary information power center — a new C-level executive whose role I’ll discuss in future columns. For now, it’s important to understand, especially if you are in a “data rich” company – and more and more companies become so every day – that critical to success today is not only to gather the mountains of data your company is now producing, but to conduct analysis across it, and unlocking this analysis for as broad an audience as possible. The discoveries you make in this analysis will increasingly become central to your company’s competitive advantage. And if you can make every employee a little bit smarter, that can have an effect larger than even those well identified discoveries. If one waits for a technology organization that is not directly incented to create this value to deliver these discoveries, one will likely wait a very long time.
Your job, especially if you are in marketing or senior management, is to capitalize on the current data revolution. Capture that data, protect it, use it and create the path to your future.