Culture for change

Why raising board-level IT IQ is vital for transformation

By Phil Le-Brun

Don't let your special character and values, the secret that you know and no one else does,
the truth—don't let that get swallowed up by the great chewing complacency

I’m a lucky guy. I get to work with some of the smartest business and tech minds in the world—colleagues and customers alike. I get a unique view, across sectors and industries, of transformation and innovation. And I can safely say that there is an incredible future in front of us. We’re in the midst of the biggest change in how businesses operate in 150 years. It’s a very exciting time.

But when I work with senior leaders, and we ask ourselves some hard questions about the biggest barriers to digital transformation in their organisation, we often come up with a slightly worrying answer. More than once, they’ve turned to me and said, ‘It’s us, isn’t it?’. By ‘us’ they mean the people sitting in the boardroom. And sometimes, they’re right. 

When you look at your own organisation, and ask what’s standing in the way of digital transformation, can you be sure it’s not the C-suite? And if it is, what can you do about it?

In 2019, I wrote a blog titled ‘Raising the IT IQ: An Executive Education’, in which I discussed what CIOs could do to raise their senior colleagues’ understanding of the transformational opportunities presented by technology. Fast forward two years, and standing on the other side of one of the biggest forcing functions for digital transformations that the world has ever seen, what’s the one thing I’ve noticed since I wrote that piece? How little has changed. 

There is no new normal. We’re still in a world of fickle customers. Of mature markets and increasing competition, where subdued growth means stealing market share from others. Executive education still reinforces leadership models designed to run 19th century factories where workers are assumed to be lazy or incompetent. And worst of all, we see huge levels of complacency around technology and transformation from leaders who (literally) should know better. 

I was shocked, but not totally surprised, to read that only 8-23 percent of the average C-suite’s key stakeholders for digital transformation—the CEO, CFO, CIO, CMO, CHRO, and legal counsels—have the necessary ‘digital fluency’ needed to do their jobs. I was slightly more startled to see that less than 50 percent of CIOs and CTOs make the grade!1

But it’s not all bad news. In 2019, ‘cultural or organisational issues’ made up 95 percent of the biggest challenges to AI/Data adoption in businesses. In 2022, that figure had plummeted to just 92 percent.2  Which means we’re well on course to having this issue sorted by the early 2100s.

Yes, many companies are more digitally transformed than 24 months ago—partly because, after 3-4 years umming and ahhing about remote working, the pandemic forced them to say ‘yes’ in 48 hours because of Covid-19. So as you look at the next few years, you now know you can make swift decisions when you have to. Are you going to continue to push forward and take the advantage, or will you go back to spending years debating whether or not to press the button on a winning bet for your business?

Technology is too big to only belong to the CIO

Money, people, technology. This is the trifecta of modern business. How you orchestrate them will, quite simply, define your future success. If you said, ‘I don’t really understand CapEx, it’s not my thing,’ you’d get laughed out of the boardroom. And yet many members of the C-suite still wear a lack of tech knowledge as a curious badge of honour. ‘I don’t really get tech’ should be a source of embarrassment, not humour.

To put it another way: How the business makes, saves, and spends money is much too important and big a subject to be left solely to the CFO. What customers think of the company doesn’t just rest with the CMO. It’s the same with tech: If you want to understand your carbon footprint to help get on top of your company’s sustainability goals, you need data. The implications of GDPR non-compliance are much bigger than the IT department. Your brand reputation could soon be affected by your ethical policy around Machine Learning. In short, how technology interacts with different parts of the company is far too important to be left to one department, team or executive.


A truly strategic CIO

And for that CIO/CTO? It’s hard work. It’s leadership. And to be a strategic leader rather than an IT manager, you need to be creating the right culture and enabling people to contribute to truly customer-first business goals—not creating silos and simply focusing on the technology.

I joined AWS partly because of the tech (I am a card-carrying, code-loving nerd), and partly because of the culture. As Peter Drucker said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. If you don’t have a company culture that supports fast learning, autonomy, and joined-up thinking, the best tech in the world will fail.

You can start calling someone a product manager and tell them to be agile, but that doesn’t make it so, despite many trying this! You need to give them the training, tools and support to create the talent that will, in turn, create the right culture.

So, what can you do?

There are essentially two lenses through which to look at why, where and how you implement tech: improving a customer’s or citizen’s experience, or making an employee’s job better. Yet so many boardroom tech conversations are about a solution looking for a problem. It feels like many of them can be boiled down to ‘we all know blockchain’s the answer, we just need to work out the question’.

There are no quick fixes, but there are things you can do to raise the understanding of your senior colleagues and get them started with the right questions:

Beautiful designers working
  • Get your leaders out into the real world: mystery shopping (in your own and competitors’ locations), and meeting customers and users. Nothing beats starting with real people.
  • Think about your storytelling. For every Netflix there’s a Blockbuster. You’ve got to show that the risk of not moving is greater than the ‘risk’ of investing.
  • Bring the right people in. AWS Enterprise Strategists for a start! We can give you a global view of what it means to transform your business, not just to update you on IT

To go back to Aesop: As senior tech leaders, your ‘truth’ is the potential to transform and accelerate your company, through technology. So don’t let that ‘chewing complacency’, whether in the form of risk aversion, a lack of tech understanding, silos or anything else, swallow you up.

Phil Le-Brun

Phil joined AWS as an Enterprise Strategist and Evangelist in September 2019. In this role, he shares practical lessons from his experiences implementing technology at scale. He uses these lessons to help enterprises succeed in achieving their own cloud-based technology goals to support organizational agility and customer-centricity.