CIOs Need To Figure Out Ways To Disrupt The Organization In Bold Ways.

By Joanna Young, Vice President & Chief Information Officer, Michigan State University, @jcycio

Any technology professional’s journey is peppered with technical issues. I remember losing sleep over electronic mail “zip storms” and inexplicable slow performance in client-server applications back in the 1990s, and more recently, denial of server attacks and inexplicable slow performance in mobile applications. However, my concern is for strategic and management issues. Fixing the huge project you thought was green but is now fire-engine red. Preventing top talent from getting recruited away by another company. Removing the burden of operational expense that restrains innovation.

Forming constructive vend or partnerships. Ensuring that culture doesn’t derail strategy. Solving a difficult relationship with an executive colleague. Each issue has its own unique solution but you always need skill, teamwork, creativity and perseverance. Technical issues will have less frequency and severity if the organization has the right strategy and is functioning in a professional, contemporary manner.

Be More Aggressive For Innovation
I typically use one or a blend of these strategies. For projects that are more operational or back office, you have to influence the organization to always do the hard work up front of defining what it is going to be fixed and/or better, both quantitatively and qualitatively – which means a culture of continuous improvement and being strict about prioritizing. For example, don’t upgrade an ERP system just to upgrade. Upgrade because it’s going to make a positive, measurable difference, and be sure that difference is being overtly captured and monitored. For innovation, you’ve got to be more aggressive, take more risk, be okay with failure, and iterate and refine in small increments. Get to market quickly with innovation; I think the saying ‘fail fast’ is particularly applicable.

Challenge The Status Quo
It’s easy for IT to stay in the role of order takers and infrastructure providers, particularly in organizations that are not used to 21st century pace of change. A CIO can do a good job by ensuring reliability, security, efficiency and service. A CIO is only going to do a great job if they push the organization to deliver innovation and delight ever-more customers. That often means making others uncomfortable and challenging the status quo. CIOs have to figure out ways to disrupt the organization in bold ways. I was referred to the other day as a ‘rebel CIO,’ and I have no problem with that moniker, as long as adjectives like curiosity, respect, and professional go along with ‘rebel.’

Keep Strategy Light Weight
The strategy ‘bumper sticker’ is easy. First, there are no technology projects, there are only business projects. Second, choose technology that’s going to deliver the most amount of positive change, as defined by value to the customer, the fastest. 1) Know your industry and your market as well as any other executive, 2) the moment a strategy is published, it is obsolete, so keep strategy lightweight, 3) tie strategy to every person and every day, through planning, objective setting and measurement, 4) timing is everything – know when a technology decision needs to be made so that delivery fits with business value, and 5) if buying a solution, don’t just write a contract, create a partnership.

IT Professional Should Know The Business As Technology
As a CIO, I expect the IT professionals on the team to know the business as well as they know technology, be customer-delight driven, and be respectful and accountable to each other and the larger organization. Taking off the IT hat, as an executive I expect interest in technology that sparks innovation, creates value, drives outcomes, and enables effectiveness and efficiency. When I buy a smart phone, I’m not buying a phone, I’m buying a portable communication, entertainment and productivity experience. When a faculty member implements instructional technology, they aren’t implementing technology, they are delivering new pedagogy. When you start to think about technology as process and experiences rather than hardware and software, it changes the conversation. Just recently, I was talking to a group of IT leaders about what we needed to make a large initiative successful. There wasn’t much on the resulting list that was about technology. The list included items like financial planning, customer value, communications, stakeholder involvement, and outcome management. And that’s how it should be.

Vice President & Chief Information Officer at

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