You know things have gone badly wrong when you hear stories of chief marketing officers being put in control of corporations' technology budgets. Or when board members start using Whats App to communicate with each other because they're fed up with being told "no" by their IT departments and have seen their kids using cool tools and thought, "Why not us?".
With the rapid changes in mobile technology, the rise of social platforms both inside and outside the firewall, and an increasingly well-informed and aspirational population of users, things are not going to get easier.
CIOs face more challenges than ever before
Corporate computing is hard. It takes work. I understand the need for rigour when it comes to serious computing – my father used to be head of computer systems at Strathclyde Region when it was the biggest local authority in Europe and I grew up with tales of proper, mainframe, payroll computing.
But too often the need to manage risk, contain costs and reduce duplication has led to IT being seen as the guys who say "no".
CEOs are becoming fed up with being told "no" all the time, and are comparing what they can do at home on their own technology with what they can do at work, which leads them to wonder what they are paying all this money for.
Lessons for CIOs
There is naivety though. People still don't really understand what it takes to keep big, complex systems going or to manage large-scale change. They are quick to point the finger of blame when things go wrong, or complain about not keeping up with the latest cool toys, but don't always appreciate what it takes to do that in the real world.
In the face of these challenges, those in charge of enterprise technology are losing influence. IT staff are not seen as the world's enablers. Their skills are becoming less valued. Their influence in their organisations is diminishing.
Rebranding doesn't help. Most people don't know the difference between a CTO and a CIO. It is like the current practice of sticking the words "collaboration" or "social" on old and tired software. It fools no one. There is a pressing need to take the intellectual high ground, to be seen as inspiring leaders of an exciting, technology-led world.
How CIOs can build influence in their organisations
To address this, CIOs can do three things: keep up better with the increasing rate of change; become enablers rather than gatekeepers; and then get better at making people aware that you are doing both.
The first challenge is to break out of the norm and keep up with change. It has been too easy to stay with the familiar enterprise players such as Microsoft and IBM, to remain stuck in large, self-contained worlds, and to ignore what has been going on outside.
Corporate IT should embrace the internet, not fight it
I often suspect IT departments have hoped that if they ignore the internet it will go away. With all its unfamiliar protocols and unruly processes it looks incredibly messy. The people who inhabit it – and can become wildly successful in it – don't play by the normal rules.
How digital technology will change the role of IT leaders
The companies that do well in it, even if they become large, don't work in the same ways as large conventional IT providers and the relationships are less established. So corporate IT needs to get better at understanding this world and, where appropriate, emulate it.
Stop thinking of your intranet as a single, managed, strategic place, and see it more like the internet. Encourage a tactical melting pot of services coming and going and adopt a hacker approach to change. Become entrepreneurial and opportunistic.
Be seen as enablers and leaders of growth and change in your businesses. Get your head around agile, not just as a way of delivering projects but as a way of managing things generally. Instead of burying people under processes and documentation, be more willing to work with "good enough", to work out loud and document as you go. Be ever vigilant in the face of the inexorable creep of bureaucracy.
Communicate clearly and share knowledge
Become skilled communicators and influencers. Language, tone and intent matter. We all know how unattractive it is to be made to feel stupid but, in the past, technologists have been masters at the put down, using jargon or esoteric knowledge to assert power.
Those in charge of enterprise technology are losing influence. IT staff are not seen as the world's enablers. Their skills are becoming less valued. Their influence in their organisations is diminishing
You have to find a way to convey things in plain language and use the language of users where possible. They feel the pressure of change and need reassurance. You can provide this. I heard recently of a couple of participants in a workshop on new technology in the city bursting into tears at the pressure they felt to keep up.
Rather than making people feel small, or having impersonal corporate training schemes, a coaching approach is more appropriate. Learn the ropes and help others catch up. Share knowledge as a common good rather than a means of control.
Why CIOs should learn to blog
This shift in approach to communication applies at the highest level too. Rather than issuing forbidding technology updates couched in the third person and written like a technical manual, start to blog on a regular basis.
If social tools are running wild and attracting people's attention, then use them to get your message across. One of the most effective early uses of a group blog at the BBC was by the IT security team. They used it to share information within the team initially but got so good at it that it became a must-read for many in the corporation.
I recently met a head of IT for a large government institution who is blogging about his work and his challenges, and by doing so is opening up all sorts of wonderful understanding and support. By being up front, by working out loud, by engaging people in his thinking, he gains influence rather than loses control.
But it is scary to start thinking out loud if you have been used to being in charge and screamed at when things go wrong. What you have to say might feel as if it is trivial and not important enough. This fear is common when people try to get involved in social media and online discussions.
Books for CIOs
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- Convergence: Transforming business at the intersection of marketing and technology
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The reason I called my blog The Obvious? was because it was me overcoming my reticence about stating the obvious out loud. You need to get better at doing this. It needs to be "authentic".
We have all seen senior executives blogging because they feel they have to or because their communications department has twisted their arm. It's a bit like watching your dad dancing at a disco! You are proud of them for having a go but would really rather they sat down.
The way to overcome this is to start small. Play anonymously outside work if it helps. Start blogging or contributing to networks without letting anyone at work know you are doing it. Read more blogs and watch how those who you respect do it.
Follow interesting people on LinkedIn (and I don't mean celebrities such as Richard Branson) and watch how they write. Start to notice more about your work, get better at summing up what you notice and start sharing it more openly. Notice who responds, notice what their reactions are. Rinse and repeat.
One step at time, things open up and start to change. Learning speeds up both for you and those who read you. I have been doing this for 13 years now and still have loads to learn. Not channel thinking, not SEO, not marketing techniques, not trying to "go viral", but learning, one conversation at a time, how to improve things and hopefully make the world a better place.
This article is based on a seminar presented to the Digital Academy, a programme for IT leaders who want to take ownership of digital technology in their organisations. Euan Semple is a public speaker, writer and consultant, and author of the book, "Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do; A Manager’s Guide to the Social Web".