Before I became CIO at NetApp, I worked in the field of transportation and logistics where I discovered a highly efficient way to inspire greater engagement from the IT team, establish long-lasting alignment between IT and critical members of the organization, and work to execute and deliver key business benefits and results for the broader organization.
What did I do? I sent IT out to ride with the drivers.
This simple, practical exercise cost nothing and delivered incredible, long-term benefits. It gave members of IT a much greater and more vivid understanding of the challenges the drivers faced — the routes, the time constraints and the daily operational realities. It eased the divisions between IT and other core parts of the company. And it inspired the IT team to become more engaged and involved in the business. After one ride, they viewed their own work from a practical standpoint rather than through the primary lens of applications and infrastructure.
As IT expands its focus to include not only core operations but also the delivery of business values in a digital world, it’s more important than ever for CIOs to encourage their IT professionals to deeply understand the business they serve. IT can no longer hide inside and behind the specific tools they utilize. Teams must possess a greater understanding of the business so they can effectively craft solutions that drive real value.
Often, though, many IT teams must first establish their credibility.
When I first arrived at NetApp, IT was primarily viewed as an order taker and a task executer. We needed to earn respect across the organization to be treated as an equal player within the company. Our first step was to focus on how we could improve stability, uptime, responsiveness and project delivery to increase the value we provide.
As we turned up the excellence of our service execution, our role expanded beyond service provider to strategic partner. As we grew into more strategic capabilities, our ability to drive innovation and our level of excitement and enthusiasm increased dramatically. We also sought and seized new opportunities and new ways to contribute.
One example that best illustrates our expanded role is the Customer One program where our IT team is the first “customer” for NetApp’s product offerings. We implement new releases in the production environment to troubleshoot, check for any bugs, and communicate fixes and feedback to engineering. We not only test process changes from professional services and support organizations but also test all upgrades and new tools deployed by our sales team. Through this program, IT serves a broader business purpose across the full spectrum of the enterprise.
For many within the IT community, this is a thrilling confirmation of what makes us so passionate about technology and its transformative ability to drive real, measurable results with extraordinary levels of efficiency and power. As many of us have long evangelized, IT is an effective platform to propel and achieve business velocity. Now more than ever.
But let’s be honest. It’s called “disruption” for a reason.
At NetApp, this expansion of roles and responsibilities represented a fundamental shift in perspective and priority. To make and smooth these transitions required a great deal of teamwork and collaboration through regular in-the-trenches discussions, brown bag lunches, coffee talks, and consistent evaluation of how effectively IT measured against the values of the company.
For all the advantages and opportunities technology has created, this necessary redefinition of IT has also created tremendous turbulence within IT teams, across the organizations they serve, and at numerous touch points where businesses connect stakeholders and consumers. Often, successfully navigating these transitions comes down to the CIO’s ability to lead.
Today, CIOs must assume an expanded leadership role that fluidly integrates the needs of the teams they lead and the businesses they serve, with a special focus on innovation in the customer experience. Without that fundamentally external perspective and awareness, it is easy to lose sight of the driving factors that shape and contribute to business success.
Time and again, I have seen that the CIO is in a singular and unique position in the C-suite to drive a greater understanding of the organization by providing a panoramic view and ability to assess needs, conflicts, priorities and resource allocations.
But as visionary as a CIO must now be, it’s more important than ever to understand that their vision must be a shared one. It is up to the CIO to establish and nurture the communication channels and atmosphere that make this all possible. Make no mistake; alignment across all aspects of the business can be a challenging transformation.
Some of the greatest hurdles a CIO can face involve inspiring IT to adapt to new ways of doing things. People can get very comfortable in their spaces and skill sets and it can be extremely uncomfortable for them when challenged to view their roles with an entirely different perspective.
It’s important to remind everyone that this is exactly what IT teams do to other parts of the business every day. You have to be able to look across an enterprise and view all areas of the business as equally important parts of a whole. The ability to balance and maintain that perspective can be a CIO’s greatest and most common test. It leads to exciting new possibilities and the kind of benefits that can only be achieved through innovations designed to alleviate real business problems.
In business today, even at the most granular departmental levels, the lines where IT starts and stops have become very blurred. For CIOs, and all IT leaders, there has never been a better or more imperative time to become untethered from the technology stack and seek out true and valuable new business solutions. Those that are able to seize this incredible new challenge will find they are well positioned to seize many more opportunities to embed IT within the broader infrastructure of the enterprise and drive real business results.
Cynthia Stoddard is CIO at NetApp
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond