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How to create a great strategy in the digital age

What are the best ways for technology leaders to create a strategy that is fit for the digital age? Computer Weekly asks the experts

Strategy is a key component of the work of the modern IT leader. Rather than reacting to wider organisational change, CIOs must position information and technology at the heart of the overall business strategy, says analyst Gartner. However, it points out that just 23% of CIOs rate their organisation as effective at business strategy and planning. 

So, how should technology leaders create a strategy that is fit for the digital age? Should they create a digital strategy, a business strategy or something else entirely? Computer Weekly asks the experts for their best-practice tips.

Collaborate with the wider leadership team 

Julie Dodd, director of digital transformation and communication at Parkinson’s UK, says the concept of a “strategy fit for the digital age” is an important step forward from the closed idea of a “digital strategy”. “It allows space for a broader view that encompasses non-technology factors,” she says.

“That is important because technology is rarely – if ever – the whole answer to any business challenge,” Dodd adds. “As a technology leader, my role is to understand and shape the overall organisation strategy for Parkinson’s UK with a particular emphasis on how digital technologies are continually changing society, and what opportunities that presents for people with Parkinson’s.” 

Some of that work is inevitably about where digital technologies can make a substantial contribution to the charity’s work, says Dodd, whether that’s about scaling direct services to people with Parkinson’s, or helping sponsor improvements in the health service through better use of patient data. But those aren’t the only concerns, she says – effort around strategy is increasingly about shifting the culture of the organisation. 

“It’s about moving to a culture that can keep pace with the constant change, and find that energising rather than alarming,” she says. “We are embedding a lot of new ways of working, some which have no obvious technological aspect, but are still a product of being an organisation in the digital age.”  

But developing a strategy fit for the digital age is not something a technology leader can do in isolation, says Dodd, who spends as much time talking about technology with the charity’s chief executive, director of support services and director of organisational development as she does with her technology staff.  

“Strategy should involve a collaboration with the wider leadership team and, wherever possible, it should focus on supporting those leaders to make their own smart decisions about technology opportunities and deployment,” she says. 

Create an approach that drives the whole organisation forward

Alan Talbot, CIO of Air Malta, is driving a digital transformation programme at his airline. Talbot became CIO in late 2016 and his experiences have led him to conclude that technology strategy sits at the heart of a modern organisation’s operational activities.   

“It cannot be detached from the business strategy,” he says. “Everything in your organisation has a digital component, whatever you produce. Having said that, you must make sure the various components you have are aligned. You can’t afford to work in a monolithic way and create silos.”

As part of the senior management team, Talbot helps executives across the organisation to make broader business decisions in key areas such as commerce and operations. As CIO, he is responsible for leading the airline’s digital transformation programme, and the business process re-engineering that accompanies that initiative.

“The primary objective is to have a common strategy that is endorsed by all business units,” he says. “And then, once you have that higher-level agreement, you can build your business strategy, whether or not it relies on digital components. You simply need a single business strategy that drives the whole organisation.”

Try to think in an organic manner 

Shawn Edwards, CTO at Bloomberg, is another tech leader whose strategic success relies on a close, collaborative relationship with his executive peers. Edwards reports to the management committee at Bloomberg and works with all the various heads of department, including sales, products and engineering. 

“The CTO office does not focus alone on all the aspects of technology at Bloomberg,” he says. “So the real question is, who decides which key areas of technology are strategic for the company? It’s a somewhat non-formal mechanism.”

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Edwards’ CTO office works closely with a range of senior executives, including one of the original four founders of Bloomberg, Thomas Secunda, the global head of engineering, Vlad Kliatchko, and Ben Macdonald, global head of product. 

“We have constant discussions and decide which are the areas that we really have to focus on,” says Edwards. “Some of them are obvious – we talk about information security, which is never going to drop off the list. But some of the areas we focus on for a while, and then we hand them off, and something else comes onto the list. 

“So we have a non-formal mechanism for digital strategy. We have ad-hoc discussions with key members of the management committee and the key heads of department. And our strategy comes out organically – it’s a collaborative process.”

Explain the technology that powers disruption 

But close executive collaboration should not be viewed as a given. Albert Ellis, chief executive of recruitment firm Harvey Nash, says there is still often a lack of alignment between CIOs and business around the aims of transformation. Although IT chiefs might have talked for years about the need for engagement, the pace of change – and a lack of joined-up thinking – still creates challenges for some strategically minded digital leaders. 

“I sense frustration from CIOs who know the business has all this great data and they just wish the business would use that information to transform itself, become closer to customers, and make more money,” says Ellis. “It’s a frustration that builds up and you then get a belief that alignment between CIOs and the business is poor and that just continues to build.”

However, Ellis’s conversations with CIOs lead him to conclude that there is hope. Non-IT leaders are aware of the power of digital disruption, but they do not necessarily understand how to take advantage of the technologies that can power that change. Strategically minded CIOs can help the rest of the c-suite join the dots, says Ellis. 

“CIOs have an extra edge on technology, such as blockchain and big data,” he says. “Key business areas, such as the verification of individuals and financial records, will be completely revolutionised by these technologies. At least if you’re a CIO, you get that – the business might have heard about these technologies, but they don’t know what they mean.” 

Listen to your customers and assemble talent 

Ian Cohen, group CIO at transport specialist Addison Lee, recognises that strategy is key challenge for modern technology leaders – but says it is also a great time to be a CIO because the vocabulary of technology has become the vocabulary of business.  

IT leaders who are keen to take on this modern digital leadership role go far beyond establishing an internal IT strategy. The days of the “analyst/vendor mimic” are over, says Cohen. Successful CIOs do more than simply follow Microsoft or IBM, or take the strategic advice of Gartner or Forrester. The best CIOs listen first to their customers, he says. 

“You can’t just run off to some over-paid advisory firm and blindly copy their latest memes to create an identikit digital strategy,” says Cohen. “This isn’t painting by numbers. Every company is unique, with unique talents, unique customers and a unique story. Just as the best leaders are authentic, so your company’s digital footprint must be similarly authentic. You must come up with your strategy for engaging with customers.” 

Cohen reiterates that an effective strategy cannot be established just by running off to one of the big technology outsourcers. “If that was your bag in the past, then you’re going to struggle in the future,” he says.

“You can’t outsource the process of innovation. The ability to assemble talent and blend a variety of ideas and approaches will be a key skill for the current and next-generation CIO.”

Make your executive peers feel confident about technology

Experienced digital leader Sarah Flannigan is another executive who believes it is a mistake to focus on the digital part of strategy at the expense of wider business thinking. “The moment you’ve got a traditional strategy or technology strategy is the moment you might be making a mistake,” she says. 

“The right way to think is to consider, commercially and strategically, what your organisation is trying to achieve and how best to do that. Then you need to ask yourself to what extent technology is one of the answers to that question.” 

Flannigan, who was previously CIO at the National Trust, left her position as CIO of utility firm EDF Energy last October and is now starting a portfolio career. She was already fulfilling non-exec positions at high-profile organisations, including the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Heritage Lottery Fund. She recently became chair of travel specialist Sawday’s and aims to fulfil a range of advisory positions, including further non-exec roles. 

One of the key lessons Flannigan has learnt during her career is that CIOs must always think in an holistic, customer-centric way first, and technology – as a means to an end – second. She acknowledges that can be an issue, because CIOs do not run a siloed organisation that sits off the side of the enterprise running IT. But it is a challenge that must be overcome. 

“Technology is now everybody’s business and so you have to find a way of improving the education of your executive team and of your board, so that they feel comfortable with, and can understand, the role that technology can play,” says Flannigan.

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