CanadianCIO Innovation Summit report: grappling with digital transformation’s human issues

If you could listen to 25 CIO’s and technology leaders in two days of unguarded conversation and discussion, what would you hear? What would you learn?

I had that rare privilege at the recent CanadianCIO Innovation Summit, a forum for Canadian technology leaders to share their common experiences and talk about the challenges they face. It was a rare opportunity for the over-scheduled leaders to engage in deep peer- to- peer discussions in a relaxed and intimate environment.

This year’s theme focused the elephant in the room – digital transformation and the changes that IT leaders face as their business models face disruption by new technology and new competition.

I walked away from the Summit impressed by the candor and insights offered by the participants. Here’s a summary of what I took away from the conversations. Where possible, I have provided a video clip of participants describing in their own words the biggest challenges they see moving towards a digital future.

Disruptive technologies will continue to emerge

A recent report published by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests there are 12 technologies in play now that have the potential to disrupt and transform the way business is done. The Internet of Internet of Things, the mobile Internet, robotics and autonomous vehicles, all make the list. Blockchain does not and William Mougayar, author of the Business Blockchain, believes that is a significant oversight. A keynote speaker at the summit, Mougayar believes the next wave of change to impact all aspects of business may be driven by the blockchain.

While many are familiar with the idea of blockchain as a threat to financial intermediaries, Mougayar pointed out that blockchains extend to more than just financial transactions. There are private and public blockchains for industries or companies. The concept started with money, but there are many trust-based uses that are beginning to be explored. For example, property transfer of all kinds lends itself perfectly as it blockchain provides an excellent chain of custody. Healthcare records, which require the security that blockchain encryption provides, can become the “holy grail” of electronic health records with secure and transparent access authorized health care professionals. Blockchain even holds up the promise of increased security and fraud prevention. Every record is encrypted, yet as the same time can be validated by a unique signature and traceability.

But what makes blockchain truly disruptive is not it’s ability to automate and secure transactions. Its long-term value proposition is the elimination of intermediaries and creation of a secure network without central control.

Those who remember the first wave of the Internet will recognize that the adoption of TCP/IP as a control protocol – and the creation of the world wide web as a platform- were enabled by a decentralized networked communication that led to the first wave of disruption we now call the digital revolution.

The Third Platform Has Changed All The Rules

Blockchain may have an incredible impact, but it’s only one of many technology developments that CIOs must manage on a day- to- day basis. It joins a tidal wave of new technologies that have rocked the enterprise: social, mobile, analytics, cloud, IoT, big data to name just a few thrust upon IT leaders at an ever increasing rate.

Bill Keyworth, VP Global Research with IDC, referred to this massive shift as the “Third Platform”. Keyworth pointed out that this is not evolution, or even simply fast-paced technology adoption. The “Third Platform” has “changed all the rules”.

It’s a great phrase, but what does it really mean? One thing that we all accept – something that we have witnessed in our research – is a loss of control. Companies no longer control their customers. Today the customer “owns” their own experience. Likewise, companies no longer have “control” of their employees and we are seeing a reduction in the power of management.

Operating with a loss of control is not new to IT leaders. Over the past years, IT has lost control of technology and its use and direction. Today, business increasingly “owns” the technology direction. What was once a source of conflict – “shadow IT” – is now an accepted business practice. And according to our research, most IT leaders have made peace with this.

Getting closer to the business side

The discussions acknowledged the need for partnering with the business side of the house and deeper understanding of the business needs. So what does business need from IT? As IDC’s Keyworth pointed out, CEOs want three things from CIOs: innovation, technology to accelerate digital transformation, and effective management of digital transformation projects.”

And CIOs are delivering. In the 2016 CanadianCIO census one of the top five day- to- day priorities identified by CIOs was innovation. CIOs may understand this need more deeply than other business leaders. In our discussions at this Summit, we repeatedly heard statements like, “we don’t enable the business. We are the business.”

So the message was clear, IT and business need to take joint ownership of success. As one CIO put it, “If you don’t have the business with you – you are chasing a dream you’ll never reach.”

It was equally clear that the real solutions require the active involvement of all corporate leadership. “Understanding and road mapping what these technologies mean to your organization is job 1 for the CIO, CMO and CEO – the entire C-level team,” said Mary Whittle, Principal at Strategic Marketing Matters.

There is a clear acknowledgment that IT is integral to the success of the business. Almost without exception, our summit participants had moved beyond the idea of being “service providers” to become an integral part of the business.

As panelist Humza Teherany, CIO Compass Group, said the biggest issue is aligning the business needs to technology. “Technology is actually the easy part. The trick is figuring out how you can solve a business problem that hits your bottom line.”

A mature understanding of the issues of digital transformation

Other participants saw the lines between business and IT blurring to the point they were disappearing. Panelist Ted Maulucci, CIO of Tridel, may have summed up the sentiment in the room when he said, “More and more, we are not a real estate company. We are a technology company that happens to manage real estate.”

Having fought their way through an increasingly rapid – and sometimes overwhelming wave of technology changes, IT leaders were unanimous the era of planned technology change has been over for some time.

“Today we are doing change so rapidly you can no longer do planned change. Companies have to become more reactive. You can’t keep up with traditional methods of changing. How do you change your people, how do you change your processes to take full advantage of these disruptions?”

The Summit participants were also unanimous in the fact the time for talking about transformation is done. Action is required urgently. “Digital transformation is the most important issue facing organizations today,” said Whittle. “The rate of change is so rapid. I feel one of the biggest gaps today is the rate of change – and the ability of the organization to absorb that change as quickly.”

Finding credible partners

Another mark of the maturity of Canadian IT leadership that we saw at the summit was the clear acknowledgment that in an era of digital transformation, there is a degree of frustration with IT. It might have been easy to pass but buck or blame the unrepresented business side, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the group focused on sharing strategies for winning over dissenting business leaders.

Their key suggestions? Be authentic, open and listening. Take the time to understand the “human factor”.

Bottom line: What does IT have to offer?

So at the end of the Summit, what did I walk away with? A clear conviction that what IT does matters. As more and more companies become software companies that deliver products and services with an increasing digital component of their core business, we have a lot to offer.

We know what it takes to build a compelling strategy and translate that into action. “Corporate leaders have to take inventory – ensure they are prepared for the competition, to react to the landscape,” said Taje Mohabir, Vice-President, Shareholder Technology at CI Investments.

“That they start acquiring or training their people to be successful.”

We understand the mechanics of technology-driven change. We understand the need to create a sense of urgency. In an era of hyper-competition, where digital products can be easily copied, brand has once again risen to preeminence. In a digital age, protection of that brand, by protecting privacy and security is paramount.

We understand the need for an end- to- end customer experience and the creativity that this requires. Digital transformation has meant solving problems that users have had difficulty solving with the methods they currently have, shared Fariba Anderson, CEO of AcuteNet. It’s about “how can technology deliver more value” by changing how people do things.

Today’s IT leader knows the importance of project management. Indeed, in our CanadianCIO census, one of the key skills that CIOs are looking for is project management. In an era, where, as IDC reports, “65 per cent of our assets may be outside our companies” the need for a new capability in project management is paramount.

We understand the practical tensions that occur when change moves faster than corporate budgeting cycles. This was clear in the presentation remarks by Dan Guna, the Toronto Transit Commission’s Chief Enterprise Architect. “The cycle of budgets is critical. Finding the right resources is critical. How do you get the budgeted resources to deal with technological change at the speed of change?” he asked.

Perhaps the greatest thing we bring is the understanding that this is not just about technology – this is about people. As one CIO stated, “Execution unravels when we forget why we are doing this and it becomes a project.” Failures result from lost foresight and when companies lose the idea of what they are trying to do and why they are doing it. Who keeps that practical vision?

Could this be the new role of IT? It could be if we have the courage, the passion and the determination to do this. Why courage? Because to be successful at digital transformation we have to embrace technology in a new way. We have to immerse ourselves in it with the same sense of passion and wonder that many of us started out with. Not as wide-eyed novices, nor as aged cynics, but with a critical and open mind.

“If 10 years ago you would have told me that I would be renting my place through Air B2B I would have said you were crazy,” Anderson told the Summit. “ But I want to experience what technology does. We need to embrace the advantages and disadvantages. It’s not all a good news story. It’s really changing the way we live.”

Are we up to it?

If this group is any indication of Canadian technology leadership, we are indeed up to the challenge. As one of the youngest participants said, “The technology is there, we can make it work. What impressed me was how much this group focused on the human factors. I’ve learned a lot.”

And so did we all.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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