What CIOs should be running instead of an IT department

If Salesforce.com can rebrand its core products and services as “the customer success platform,” there should be no reason why CIOs couldn’t rebrand IT departments as customer success departments.

I can already imagine some people in large enterprises rolling their eyes at these kinds of name games, but as I sat through the opening sessions of DreamForce 2014 in San Francisco this week, it was Salesforce’s repositioning of its public identity that seemed the thing its customers — and even those who aren’t its customers — should adopt first. Perhaps because it’s been so difficult to keep up with technology changes and user needs, IT departments and their leaders have accepted a reputation for failing to deliver. A customer success department, on the other hand, might sound more aspirational than an IT department, but it better articulates the potential of what great IT departments and CIOs can do.

The mobile and analytics impact

The actual tools Salesforce is rolling out at its annual customer event will only make the need for customer success departments more obvious. It was natural that the company would build upon its success in areas like customer relationship management with Salesforce Wave, an analytics offering that’s designed with mobile users in mind. CRM data has often been considered a key ingredient in analytics. For years, experts predicted CRM would give way to “master data management” which would in turn fulfill the promises of business intelligence applications. For many firms, it didn’t really turn out that way, but Salesforce Wave comes at a time when the cloud and mobile hardware have matured considerably. Analytics can now happen more as part of the process of doing business than something that happens after the fact. Similarly Lightning, something Salesforce said would help speed up the creation of enterprise apps, reflects the DIY preferences of line of business users who will either work in partnership with the CIO’s team or at arm’s length.

Before the majority of firms are running their entire business from a smartphone, however, and getting analytics and apps with a few clicks, there will be a considerable transition period. Entire workflows, training processes and IT policies will all require substantial fine-tuning, whether they use Salesforce or similar products from Oracle, IBM and a host of others. CIOs and IT departments will continue to play a critical role in supporting and empowering business professionals through this transition, which is why they should think about how they’ll morph into customer success departments, either with an organization-wide rebranding or just a better internal understanding of their priorities.

The Uber of IT help desks

One of the more intriguing models of what CIOs and customer success departments might look like comes from startups like Uber and Airbnb. These firms are poster children for the so-called “sharing economy,” where the owners of under-utilized resources like limos and real estate use apps and analytics to allocate them more effectively, creating new revenue models and providing, in some cases, really popular services.

IT departments aren’t exactly filled with people sitting around waiting for something to do, but given how many CIOs have had to lay off staff, they will have to become more innovative in how they share expertise across the departments who need them. In some ways, this shouldn’t be a stretch; they have made substantial investments over the last few years with cloud computing and virtualization to make the way they offer IT resources more dynamic and flexible. As business professionals get increased abilities to create their own apps and make more decisions on the go, a CIO’s staff will have to be as responsive as an Uber cab — in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the kind of business app some pioneering IT leader will create.

Sensors and sensibility

This isn’t to suggest it will be easy for CIOs to adapt to the sharing economy’s approach. Even among startups there are difficulties; for every Uber there is a Hailo, which earlier this week announced it was shutting down its operations across North America. CIOs, though, may at least have the advantage that other areas of technology are opening up opportunities to contribute in new ways to customer success.

For example, one of the other themes at Dreamforce (and many other conferences this Fall) is the potential to unlock value from the Internet of Things (IoT), where a proliferation of sensors is connecting more objects to the network than ever before. Right now, many experts and analysts are suggesting that companies harness the IoT to track things that have rarely been tracked with any precision, such as the wear and tear on equipment, in order to be more proactive about maintenance and repair. Depending on how it is used, the IoT could allow companies to reduce costs, generate new streams of revenue, or both.

A customer success department will be a leader in its use of IoT to track not only how various pieces of the data centre are used (much of those tools have existed for some time) but how everything from employee smartphones to shelves in a retail store or benches in a bank branch are being used. This ability to quantify so much of the physical world will reshape the ability of CIOs and their teams to tackle previously off-limits aspects of customer experience, both internally and externally.

Perhaps CIOs will be wary of referring to their staff as a customer success department because it could set them up for a fall. Yes, there is a great deal of risk in such a move. But maybe not as much risk in continuing to run IT department the way they are run today.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
Shane Schickhttp://shaneschick.com
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