AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

Raising the IT IQ: An Executive Education

“Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.”

As with many subjects, Plato was ahead of his time in understanding the challenges of a CIO. In many businesses today, we have excelled at the desire (“We will lead our industry with digital transformation.”) and the emotion (“I’m passionate about transforming our business.”), but often it is the knowledge that is lacking (“Why does IT keep asking for my people to participate in this transformation? Isn’t it a technical problem?”). Here I want to address a topic which is continually overlooked but is of critical importance to enterprises today—that of raising the level of technology understanding across executive teams. Years ago at McDonald’s we used to call this “raising the IT IQ,” with the philosophy that an educated executive would be a supportive executive.

There is a wealth of data over the past two decades that highlights communications, education, and change management as key elements of failed initiatives. Many of these, including the “CHAOS” reporting from the Standish Group, the Project Management Institute’s Pulse of the Profession report, and articles from the big management consulting companies, focus specifically on technology initiatives. These reports all highlight the same depressing news: a large proportion of major technology initiatives not only fail to hit the basic criteria of on time and to budget, but they also fail to deliver many of the benefits promised in the initial business case. A small but significant number of these initiatives go on to pose an existential threat to companies.

Many of these analyses highlight project size as the single most important factor determining a successful outcome, a topic covered in previous blogs and one that reemphasises the importance of continuous delivery models and architecture patterns such as microservices. The gift of fixing this issue is in our hands. Where the root causes get interesting is in the list of other major consistent derailers for technology-enabled initiatives. Top of the list is the lack of appropriate executive sponsorship.

A myth still permeates a lot of leadership training: the leader as the omnipotent authority sitting at the top of an organisation. While most CXOs have an excellent understanding of traditional value stream activities, such as marketing, operations, logistics, and finance, their technology training is more normally acquired in an ad-hoc manner, if at all. If you don’t believe me, browse a few MBA syllabi.

Technology is now far bigger than a single department within a company. Very few companies should now accept phrases such as “I don’t get this techy stuff” from their senior leaders, but we have an accountability to proactively educate our peers and boards on technology. Many of us have experienced the extremes of technology understanding, ranging from “We need <insert tech buzzword>.” (So what problem are you looking to solve?) through to the abdication of any engagement in technology decision-making and implementation only to wonder why an initiative failed.

Following good leadership principles, let’s assume that we—the designated technology leaders of an organisation—are doing something wrong because, in many cases, it’s true. We often deprioritise communications as a planned, regular activity in preference to what we often refer to as “real work.” Alternatively, the communications we use fit one or more of adjectives, such as boring, long, irregular, incomprehensible, or overwhelming.

As technology leaders, we have a dual role in an organisation—the functional lead for the team and a change agent that uses technology as a means of improving, growing, and transforming an organisation. We know that digital transformation is not solely about the technology, it is about an organisation’s culture and posture toward customers. To achieve this change requires a strong understanding of the technology and its fit within a customer’s journey by everyone. I once heard a CIO accurately state that “the technology is mildly interesting, it’s the business change we can create that is important.”

If you are a CIO, CTO, or CDO and are reading this, step back and, ideally with a change and communications professional, look at the educational and awareness needs of your executive ranks. Focus on content, but also make it exciting, jargon-free, and engaging!

A few thought-starters based on what has worked for me when putting together an IT IQ programme:

  • Internal executive briefings. Many of the well-known consulting and technology companies can help here. Pick one or two topics to demystify, such as AI, ML, or IoT. It is also an opportunity to educate executives on what your team is doing in these areas and what support you require.
  • Run regular educational webinars and record them. I was always surprised about the diversity of individuals who would show up to our monthly webinars on a technology topic we thought people would find interesting.
  • Run a boot camp. Boot camps are a great way of harnessing the passion and pride in a technology department while exposing executives to a hands-on demo of your technologies and innovations.
  • Host a hackathon. Similar to boot camps, this is an excellent opportunity to create enthusiasm cross-functionally and to solve real-world issues, as well as to improve the perception of the technology team.
  • Go visit competitors with your executives (aka Mystery Shops) to see how they are using technology, and benchmark with analogous companies. This has a dual purpose of teaching executives what the art of the possible is, as well as helping contextualise the strengths of their existing technology and teams.
  • Invest in reverse mentoring. Have your up-and-coming talent spend time with executives. It is a great way for more junior team members to bring their expertise and expectations to the table with what would traditionally be called seasoned managers and leaders.
  • Regularly publish newsletters. While not advocating piling on to the email overload we all suffer, predictable, concise, and relevant communications on key events, achievements, and upcoming initiatives are a proven way to keep a broad audience informed. I sent out a one-page update for many years to a broad audience of which over 50% were non-technical. The continual reinforcement helped elevate our overall IT IQ.
  • Work with your HR/talent team to create a technology on-boarding programme for new executives. This is a great way to create an early connection with potential advocates.

I have not used the word “cloud” in this blog. Communication is an issue that transcends any particular technology but it is also one that presents an increasing barrier as demands grow faster than knowledge, and technology choice and complexity grows. An investment in raising executive understand of technology will pay dividends, including more active participation in governance, elevated pride within your technology teams, and, ultimately, a much better success rate with your technology-enabled business initiatives.

Oh, and if you are a different type of CXO reading this, ask your CIO or CTO what they are doing to raise your and your organization’s IT IQ. Digital transformation is not about the technology, it is about your core business and competitive posture. Are you really comfortable delegating this?

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Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun is an Enterprise Strategist and Evangelist at Amazon Web Services (AWS). In this role, Phil works with enterprise executives to share experiences and strategies for how the cloud can help them increase speed and agility while devoting more of their resources to their customers. Prior to joining AWS, Phil held multiple senior technology leadership roles at McDonald’s Corporation. Phil has a BEng in Electronic and Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Business Administration, and an MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice.