Who controls technology (and does it matter)?

August 23, 2022
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In this article, Lily Haake, Head of Practice at Harvey Nash, part of Nash Squared, looks at who really 'owns' technology within an organisation, and what impact does that have on the business.

In the past, we used to talk about ‘shadow IT’, which was sometimes also referred to as ‘democratised IT’ and then ‘business-managed IT’. But the paradigm has shifted now – technology and the business are so closely intertwined that it feels like these terms are outdated. IT is the business and the business is IT.

I don’t need to look far amongst my client base to see this. For example, an engineering company that previously sold precision engineered components, now makes significant revenue from the software packages it sells with those components that offer real-time machine diagnostics. You could say it’s now actually a technology company that just happens to manufacture precision components.

Then there’s a major logistics brand that has transformed into a platform company so that it’s now a digital-first logistics integrator. They are becoming a technology company that just happens to be a provider of logistics and transportation.

Even sectors perhaps perceived as behind the curve in their leveraging of tech are rapidly transforming – our clients in the water industry are also striving for ‘digital first’ and see data and analytics as the lifeblood of the organisation.

A technology partnership

So who actually controls technology? In order for transformation to work, it has to be a genuine partnership between technology and the business, with constant collaboration and feedback loops. Agile delivery methodology makes that an imperative too – it just doesn’t work without constant business input.

Without sponsorship from the CEO and the executive team, as well as a true understanding amongst the leadership team of what it takes to deliver successful digital programmes, transformation will inevitably fail.

This isn’t to say that organisations are seeing success from simply giving the business free rein. Many of my CIO contacts have commented that they’ve joined a business only to find a mess of ‘spaghetti’, where different parts of the organisation have purchased a new system without any consideration of the architecture that underpins it all.

Likewise, others reflect on well-meaning colleagues who come to them with a shiny new toy and expect to be able to just ‘plug it in’ – leading to costly integration and support challenges. Giving the business the keys to technology is also harder in bigger, legacy organisations with large technical debt – the technology team here needs to exert some control and guide the business on the art of the possible within the existing technology estate.

Changing dynamics

There’s no doubt that some of the fundamentals around the role of technology and who drives it are changing.

I was at a vendor day for a client in the industrial sector recently where they were showcasing their digital ambitions to technology vendors. We viewed exhibitions on their digital programmes from team leaders in customer, innovation, data, security and digital asset management. Later the CIO told me that only one of these leaders sat in their direct technology team.

It made me think what a challenge it must be to drive this sort of fundamental change through a business without direct line management of the programme leaders. But also, what an achievement it is to do it successfully.

Some CIOs are pragmatic – one said to me recently that when members of the technology team complain that the business is trying to do their own thing with tech, she encourages them to be reflective. “Why might they be trying to do this?” she asks them.

Perhaps it’s because they’ve left a vacuum – there’s a business problem that technology has not been supporting, so the business has fixed it themselves. In her view, it wouldn’t happen if the technology team was closer to the business and being more proactive.

Digital literacy is key

The caveat to all of this is that digital skills are still lacking amongst business leaders in many organisations. A lack of understanding around the possibilities of tech and also around the need for strong governance is holding many businesses back. This is particularly marked amongst the non-executive community, which seems to be one of the slowest to catch up with digital literacy.

In these organisations, the CIO may still be leading more of a ringfenced IT organisation – operating as a provider to the business rather than a partner. This gives the CIO more control – but stifles collaboration and true digital transformation.

In other words, managing technology is really about achieving a balance between governance and control through the CIO and their team, and flexibility in the business to use technology to become more innovative and grow.

What’s in a name?

We see this also in terms of the various digital leaders within a business. Is the CIO still the number one leader? The CTO? The CDO? And does it matter? We’ve spent years as an industry debating what the leader of technology should be called – but that feels like semantics now.

Our 2021 Digital Leadership Report showed how technology responsibilities are becoming more dispersed across the organisation, with the Board simply looking for positive outcomes to be delivered. The CIO is obviously – and will always be – a major tech player, but leveraging technology is not solely the responsibility (or the preserve) of the CIO any more.

Technology is like a stick of rock – it runs through the organisation and can’t be siloed. In that respect, it’s similar to ESG and diversity & inclusion. Managing and controlling technology is a shared responsibility between the various digital leaders – whatever job titles an organisation gives them – as well as a shared accountability right through the business.

Some leaders are taking new and fairly radical approaches. The former CIO turned CEO of an SME technology business decided that, as technology was so integral to their organisation, she would promote her technology leaders to business leaders. Her CPO was ‘a tech leader who is great with people’, and COO ‘a tech leader who understood operations’. This wouldn’t be feasible in a larger corporate, but maybe it indicates the direction of travel we’ll see.

We used to say that technologists need to understand the business and develop business skills; but to an extent perhaps that’s flipped. Now it’s business people who need to understand technology. Leveraging and controlling technology therefore becomes everyone’s business – with a strong and confident CIO at the helm to oversee strategy, governance and continuity. Welcome to the future.

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