The new vocabulary of IT leadership

Surrounded by rapid changes in the technology environment – what with cloud, mobile, big data and all the other topical industry buzzwords – the vocabulary of IT leaders has shifted noticeably in recent months.

Where once the talk was about strategic suppliers, outsourcing, datacentre transformation, server consolidation and other heavily IT-focused topics, now at every event where CIOs are present, the conversation is different.

Agility, startups, innovation, digital, customer experience – these are the subjects being shared and discussed among IT leadership peers.

We became used to the old mantra that the typical IT department spends 80% of its time keeping the lights on and just 20% on new initiatives. Increasingly, if your IT department operates in that conventional way, you’re being left behind by the leading CIOs.

One of the new concepts Computer Weekly has written about recently is the “two-speed” IT department, where the infrastructure and operations are kept completely separate from innovation and development.

The former still works on established principles of change control and systems administration processes, looking to improve price-performance – and of course cut costs.

But the innovation side works to a different set of processes and principles, getting much closer to the customer – both internal and external – using more agile approaches, and employing phrases such as “fail fast” and “minimum viable product” that would be anathema to old-school IT teams.

Here are a few examples – there are plenty of others:

We need to be flexible to do IT developments at multiple speeds” – Sarah Venning, head of IT relationships at John Lewis.

Big suppliers are not able to innovate at the speed we need” – John Finch, CIO of the Bank of England.

Be pragmatic and be very fast. Don’t focus on five-year roadmaps. Focus on small deliverables” – Mariano Albera, CIO at Thomas Cook.

We are dealing a lot more with startups. We are using them a lot more than before because they have fresh ideas” – David Speirs, CIO of Menzies Distribution.

We now have a more enlightened view of suppliers. We have to change the mindset, and work with nimbler companies to deliver solutions” – Kevin Griffin, CIO at GE Capital.

Some companies, like Thomas Cook, have gone as far as dividing the CIO role in two – with one leader looking after day-to-day operations, and the other driving innovation and the digital agenda.

The traditional big IT suppliers are going to find it increasingly difficult to adapt to the new IT department – especially where their strengths are in back-end infrastructure, where over time more and more processing and storage power is going into the public cloud.

Few of those big players are entirely comfortable in the agile, responsive, customer-focused innovation and skunkworks teams that are emerging. That’s where smaller suppliers and tech startups thrive.

For all the hand-wringing that goes on about the role of the CIO and their future in the business, the best IT leaders are just adapting to the new digital world and leaving behind many of the old conventional ways of delivering and managing IT.

It’s increasingly the case for these individuals and their teams, that the phrase “IT leader” is more about the leader, than the IT.