IT leadership in the 21st century

The question I am working on is this. How can IT leaders drive the right level of cloud adoption? We know cloud computing can bring risks and benefits. But how can organizations swiftly and securely do the right level of adoption?

No place for bean counters

When I talk about IT leaders I don’t mean the bean counter who is only trying to keep IT cost down. That is not the skill set that this article is about.

In an age where arguably every business is innovating through IT, a whole different skill set is required.

The IT leaders I am talking about are the ones whose mission it is to support the business goals and ambitions of their organizations. Their job is to use information technology to the maximum while staying within the flight envelop given by the organization’s risk appetite.

I suspect that this requires deep understanding of information technology and its risks.

The first question might be: why should we embrace the right level of cloud adoption?

My answer to that is that it depends on how digitally infused you are. If you company is mainly ‘brick and mortar’, cloud computing can lead to cost savings, if done right. But if your business is dependent on digital communication with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders, it will depend on its capacity to adapt its IT systems quickly. For that, cloud computing brings agility. And therefore IT leadership’s role includes enabling that agility for the business.

IT leaders

Who is actually leading IT and the company IT strategy? At first sight you might be talking about who sets the budget, and oversees the staff. For example: what CRM system to invest in? In the end, the CIO is supposed to control that.

But that ignores a whole set of decisions on the long term direction of IT. Although IT is a dynamic and rapidly changing field, it is also know for dragging along a lot of legacy. Anecdotes abound about COBOL mainframe applications that have been unchanged for decades, and production systems that are running on Windows XP. Yet, at the time those where sound innovative decisions.

To be truly innovative requires making decisions on the future direction of technology and how the company is going to benefit from it. These decisions will impact the organization of IT way beyond the next budget cycle.

And if it is innovative, it is also unproven: “No risk, no fun”, “No pain, no gain”. It requires taking calculated risks that can have a large upside, yet fit within the risk appetite of the company as a whole. It requires making choices about what to adopt and what not.

These choices require a reasonably detailed understanding of new technology and the risks that it can bring. The better you understand the risks, the better the balance you can strike. Better brakes allow your car to go faster.

The competences to make these decisions are most likely to be found in the IT architects and IT risk managers. It might be in the skill set of the CIO, but I find that rare.

The required leadership skills not only extend to technology decisions. Every change in the structure of technology requires a change in the structure of the organization. Old silo’s fade away, new skill sets, tasks, and responsibilities set in. Nowhere is this more clear than in the uptake of cloud computing. Parts of the responsibility of running IT are outsourced as well as changed in service model. That surely impacts the IT power structure.

IT leadership therefore also requires the skill to navigate the organization through a change in its power structure. Within IT, and increasingly also outside the IT department, tasks and responsibilities shift. That can be painful. Resistance is to be expected.

So what are the new conflicts to be resolved? And what is the mission of the IT leader?

For that, we first need to look at innovation with and within IT.

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