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The super-resilient CIO

How developing ‘super-resilience’ can help your organisation thrive on adversity

The world is changing. The process-oriented factory model of industrial-era organisations is no longer fit for purpose. “Transform the business” is the new “run the business”. Business transformation is less a programme and more an operating model.

This transformation embraces digitisation – embracing new technologies to create faster, smarter and cheaper processes and services. But that is only a subset of transformation. A smarter, faster, cheaper Titanic is still a Titanic. We also need to harness both the value lying dormant in our data and the cognitive capacity lying untapped in the organisation’s talent.

Technology management is critical to this. If you consider the full value chain from the chip makers through to the technology consumers, a key node is the IT function. This is where supply meets demand. An effective IT function amplifies the value the technology players deliver. Similarly, a dysfunctional IT function is a value dampener. The users, the clients and, ultimately, society suffer.

This is the first of three articles on how the CIO and the IT function can play a pivotal role in creating what might be called a super-resilient organisation.

Super-resilience

Why super-resilient? Why not simply resilient, or even robust? Organisations founded in the industrial era enjoyed a high level of market predictability. Competitors were recognisable, customers were relatively loyal and, once a niche was found, it could be exploited for years, if not decades. You could say the industrial era cultivated a kind of synthetic certainty that, in turn, led to what might be termed operating model ossification (aka a factory).

Today the market is much more dynamic. The factory model is simply too arthritic and fragile to adapt to the increasing market uncertainty and volatility. Some organisations respond by attempting to cultivate robustness into their factory models. But like the robust boxer who gets up after every punch, eventually they stop getting up.

A resilient organisation is like a rubber ball that loses no energy when bounced off the floor. Such organisations might be considered agile. This is good, but we can do better. If you think of the organisation as less a factory and more a living, sensing organism that grows in capability the more it is tested, then you have a super-resilient organisation – one that thrives on adversity. I believe this is what is needed in today’s market.

Age of uncertainty

In short, most “industrial era birthed” organisations are far from being super-resilient. Their leadership knows nothing other than the factory model and so resort to extreme “process polishing” (business process engineering) when the pressure mounts. Often, the business can give the impression of being viable by cost management alone. Sometimes that is their only play, as they have no idea how to turn the cognitive capacity of their people into innovative services. But this is not a sustainable solution and so many organisations are really on their last legs.

Industrial-era business leaders have never really seen the true value of the IT function. In part, this is a leadership competence problem, but it is also a problem of the positioning of the CIO and the IT function. It is quite bizarre to observe how in a data-driven, technology-centric world, how few organisations include the CIO in their top team.

Organisations need CIOs

There are various ways to define the digital age. For me, the primary characteristic is the collapse of certainty. Global supply chains, coupled with global communications, have created a chaotic environment. When everything relies on everything and everything is connected to everything, it is no longer possible to anticipate the future. In many respects, this heralds the death of traditional strategy. Today situational awareness is key – and the key to situational awareness is data.

The “I” in CIO does not stand for IT manager. Information is a derivative of data. Data, per se, has no value, much like crude oil. The trick is having access to oilfields coupled with state-of-the-art extraction and refinement tools. This is the CIO’s bailiwick. Keeping the networks and servers running is not the goal, but that is how may CIOs allow themselves to be judged. Consequently, they are perceived as IT managers, reporting to an actual CxO.  

As the IT industry makes its way into the cloud, the need for an IT manager is diminishing. There is plenty of IT management work to do, given the significant legacy of unintegrated IT systems still in operation. This will no doubt enable many “CIOs” to continue on this IT management path. But be warned, it is a dwindling line of work.

Cultivate super-resilience

In my experience, not all CIOs want to be a CIO in the manner I have described. They don’t want to be a C-suite executive and are quite happy to be the victim of the business strategy. The downside is that they are often blamed for business issues not of their making, but which have an IT component, and so they find themselves on the move every couple of years.

Of course, there are successful CIOs who are at the helm steering the organisation through stormy waters, turning data into market value. We need more such tech-savvy business leaders. Such CIOs are working for super-resilient organisations that can pick up on weak signals in respect of incoming opportunities and threats. Data is key to this.

But what constitutes a super-resilient CIO? I would define this as the ability to adapt to whatever environment they find themselves in, each time adding to their portfolio of skills and thus becoming more valuable, and more employable.

So how do you become a super-resilient CIO?

  • Build trust: Firstly, even though we live in a data-driven world, it is occupied by humans. So our ability to establish trust with all stakeholders is critical. Trust comes from developing a reputation for being reliable, credible and displaying a concern for the needs of others. Get this right and you will find you have a lot more wiggle room when things don’t go to plan.
  • Develop learnability: Just because you are experienced doesn’t mean you can stop learning. Those who can learn fast adapt more quickly. Adopt a growth mindset. Consider yourself as “always in beta”.
  • Understand your value: Your current employer might be overpaying you because they have little sense of what constitutes good value. I would encourage you to really understand your perceived value by putting yourself out there in the market. You may not be intending to change role, but you will soon learn what you are worth when the recruiters flock to you or refuse to take your calls.
  • Care about your employer: Do you really care about the CEO’s vision? Have you read the annual report and scrutinised the key themes that show up in the CEO’s statement? More importantly, do you report progress in the context of these key themes?
  • Be a genuine leader: In the industrial era, the leadership title was ordained by the HR function. Today it is conferred by your followers.

Digital leadership is a competence

I have been working with CIOs for many years and am conscious that it is a very demanding and underappreciated role. As technology takes on more human work, we are all facing the need to transform personally.

I believe digital leadership is a competence, not a role. Every leader must embrace this new reality. This represents an alignment of the planets for the CIO. I also believe that CIOs potentially represent the primary talent pool for the next generation of CEOs.

Think of super-resilience as a trait or superpower – or even a key to the C-suite.


This article is the first part of a series of three. Read part two and part three.

Ade McCormack has developed an online education programme to cultivate organisational super-resilience. Visit www.dri.guide and select the Business Transformation Programme. You will receive 50% discount with coupon code CWDRI19.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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