Tech Leaders and Business Strategy – An Ambiguous Relationship

Within this past decade the spotlight has shone brightly on technology and its contributions to industry and society – revealing both positive and negative propensities in its development and deployment. Greater surgical precision a la robotics is countered by cyber-espionage and privacy apertures at international levels. Alongside these is the consumerization of technology – exacerbated by the Internet of Everything, as it were. The economy was not exempt, as the expectations arising from focused investment in national infrastructure and human capital is tempered by ‘the rise of the machine age’ – at the leading edge being lights out manufacturing and the accompanying jobless growth.

In this context it comes as no surprise that Steve Case, co-founder of AOL cum entrepreneur at the 2015 SXSW alluded to the third Internet age – which he predicts would serve to ‘accelerate disruption across all industries’ – driven in part by (r)evolution in capital and social landscapes – which will force companies to ‘adapt or die’. Dramatic? Maybe. Excessive? Well, in the casino of competitiveness, would you be willing to bet your firm on it?

 We cannot dispute the fact that the technology today is ‘disrupting market leadership’ as Porter said. Nor can we argue against its contributions on the emergence of new businesses and business processes, alongside expanding opportunities which we fully expect to be reflected in the top and bottom line values. As Marakas and O’Brien put it, ‘technology is no longer an afterthought in forming business strategy, but the actual cause and driver’. The expectations are that information systems and technology deployed within and throughout an organisation is expected to contribute to efficient business operations; enterprise-wide collaboration and more effective decision-making; and in tandem aid in no small way to make the firm more customer-driven, responsive, and generally deliver customer value centred on quality more than price or location.

Herein lays the pretty paradox. Firms are waking up to what is becoming more possible through technology, and are investing more in an attempt to realise these possibilities. Not so the function that is charged with harnessing this resource and unleashing it upon the competitive landscape. Remarkably under-resourced (after all, IT investments already account for a large share of the budget), the IT department has to get by as operations support – a caddy, if you will – and in many cases report to a cost-containment executive, charged with keep the lights on while the core business makes rain. It should come as no surprise then that projects are over scope, often fail to deliver, layers of applications sit idly by as real-time technology supports inefficient processes, and somehow training sessions on solution roll-out become exploratory discussions on workflows, with users – initially being propelled by waves of change – find themselves in a whirlpool of wonderment and despair.

This context is exacerbated by the imposition of more layers of isolation by the IT department – a help desk, a ticketing system and remote administration all serve to spur on the queries as to whether humans work in the department at all. We hear of arguments that IT does not understand the business, and counter arguments that it’s the line that has to drive change, all of which makes for entertaining meetings and underwhelming results.

To overcome this hurdle, as George Colony (CEO of Forrester Research) put it, ‘the CIO has to be a great teacher’. This extends to not only signalling to the line the current and emerging possibilities, but also digest the business strategy and craft a response that fully leverages available or applicable technology. To be clear, this goes beyond keeping the lights on. As Steve Olive (CIO of Raytheon Defence) says, ‘consistently reliable and excellent IT service should be a given. What businesses need and IT should be providing are innovative solutions to business challenges.’

What this requires is firstly effective management capability by our IT leadership. The ability to assess, plan and execute in line with business goals and objectives would serve to eliminate the cost-containment filter that tempers possible IT development. It requires a core management focus that is applied to technology as a resource. But this is not an easy feat, moving from graduates who are essentially information engineers, more adept with the mechanics of information management and technology engagement than its business applications. Consider the view that undergraduates from Computer Science departments, or practitioners with professional certifications harbour a thorough understanding of the operational continuity of the function predominantly – those who were able to make that transition demonstrate a much more broad-based exposure than core IT operations.

The second tier of development is the evolution of core IT management to the strategic level, wherein it not only maps the resource to business strategy as a whole and at the various functional executing agents, but is able to craft offensive and defensive business strategy that directly engages competitive rivalry and levers of competitiveness to propel the organisation forward. Armed with new products, aimed at new markets, and bound by data-driven decisions and a learning organisation, this level of contribution realises value-driven results within, throughout and beyond the boundaries of the firm and extending to suppliers, customers and partners. The net effect is an organisation fully-equipped today to redefine market leadership tomorrow, driven by IT Leadership 2.0.

Steve Case (SXSW 2015) predicts the Internet’s third age wherein entire sectors would undergo radical innovation due to technology diffusion and disruption. We agree. We are already working to create it.

March 2015


On Purpose: Leveraging Our Personal Strengths

We are unique in our identity as we are in purpose.

Our identity is based on the generic construct of our unique ancestors, compounded by our own experiences, and interpretations thereof, as we journey through life. These all converge in our minds to provide us the lens through which we view the world and our place in it. And thus we craft our purpose that may enable us to demonstrate our distinction and contribute to our conviction in this great medley we call society.

Our purpose is infinitely more ambiguous (relative to identity), and in one sense all we know is our presence as the effect of the copulation of our parents and their ancestors. But this answers more HOW we happen to be here than the more important WHY.

In the grand design we may never truly understand our purpose of being – it may well have been to directly uplift persons from a disadvantaged or oppressed position; as it may have been to prepare the world to receive another; or to embody or exemplify what should not be done, and thereby remind another of the folly of an act or pattern of behaviour. History alone would vindicate our contribution in this regard.

At another level, we have a purpose of doing – a driving force that shapes our interpretation of our environment and our responses to the changes therein. A primary motivator, this purpose can be identified by inspiration or situation. Regardless of how our purpose is revealed to us, we must be open to accepting it into the very fabric of our being – to let it infuse every cell of our bodies and every synapse of our brain.

Our purpose must become our soul – that gives direction to our efforts. It is easy to classify this purpose as our motivation in its conventional sense, yet this purpose is deeper than, and may even contradict our motivations and aspirations.

This purpose of doing is more akin to our sense of duty – what are those things for which we will be held accountable – either in this and/or the next world.

How can we find purpose? Do we choose it or it chooses us? Our purpose of being may be crystal clear to use or we may exhaust our lives (even those of others) and may never know. Our purpose of doing is informed by that ever-present dichotomy of our unique gifts as human beings and those situations in which we find ourselves. In any circumstance, we can either utilize our gifts for the benefit of ourselves and/or others – this balance we alone can set – or learn from the situation and build armour to contribute more significantly in the future: there is no punishment, since the looming Day of Reckoning or Judgment us yet to come to pass.

What are our gifts then? As a species, our collective gift is that of freedom to choose – not what we face as we perpetually move closer to our demise – but rather how we respond to those situations which we are given to face – the ever-evolving realities that entrust their sacred lessons to our care. All humans are given this gift, wrapped in a burst of colour and textures, scents and sounds that we appropriately call the present. This gift defines us collectively, and one that we bestow the same courtesy on as any other gift, engendering with care even as we savour its character.

Beyond this, subjectivity reigns. A gift is as valuable as its worth to whom it is bestowed. IT may be only skin deep, an ease to behold if not a pleasure. For others it may be wit, mirth or courage. Yet others may be entrusted with intellect or wisdom that they may guide. Others still may be happy dependents who bestow love, care and gleams of admiration that fuels the fires of our passion.

And what if our gifts cannot enable us to reach our goals – that which we aspire to own or achieve? Gifts are given to us to do with as we choose…

But Know! Under-utilisation or use for only frivolous or selfish ends will ensure that these gifts do not linger in their departure – but rather dissipate into a realm that we may never know or can never reach. It becomes that drop that escapes our clutches and falls into the sea – which we may never again taste of its succulence.

May our purpose mold our identity, and provide a beacon toward which we sail, beyond storms and calm seas.