CIO Column

A warning from 2006, CIOs be aware

Demand for automation is an opportunity for CIOs and CTOs, but is not new.

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“Business and its naive attitude that automation was instant and anything could be bolted on,” reads part of a sentence from CIO magazine in 2006. A recent piece of work with Wardley Mapping expert Simon Wardley led me back to the early days of this century, and this sentence so pertinently describes what business technology leaders faced in 2006 and today in 2022.

2006 is a warning to CIOs for the year and years to come. As with those early post-Y2K times, CEOs and boardrooms are once again clamouring for automation, and in all too many conversations, they think it will be easy. Therefore CIOs and CTOs need to be aware of the bear traps hidden in the undergrowth of automation whilst also seeking to meet the expectations of the CEO and board. 

2006 feels like an age ago. It would be another two years before I joined the CIO community with IDG Connect sister title CIO, and the audience of the title I edited for in 2006 - professional and scientific publishing - was dipping its toes into the world of databases and online subscription revenues, whilst at the same time fiercely protecting physical print journals and their revenue models. The State of the CIO Survey, produced by CIO magazine, demonstrates how cyclical our industry is. At the time, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) implementations were the big modernisations CIOs were being tasked with, and the automation these technologies delivered - or promised - to business processes. For the next few years, big project failures continued to dog the enterprise IT community, and then in 2008, light regulation of the global banking sector brought about the recession and a decade of austerity that would follow.

Although we should heed the warning of 2006, the CIO community can also look back on the years that followed with pride. That banking crisis and I believe Y2K, began the journey of the CIO becoming a business leader. CIOs were instrumental in organisations being able to make efficiencies in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, whilst in some nations, public sector CIOs would continue to make efficiencies well beyond the financial crisis. That business acumen was once again called upon in the last two years, as organisations rapidly became distributed enterprises in order to protect their employees and customers during the global lockdowns.

Last year’s Gartner CEO survey found that leaders are planning on increasing their technology investments over the next two years and for business operations to become more digital - effectively more automated. A distributed enterprise coping with rising inflation, a global skills shortage and at the time of writing, an invasion in Ukraine heightens the need for technology to once again cut the flab from businesses and increase efficiency.

There is a strong case for automation; demographics across the western world reveal an ageing population, a post-pandemic workforce that understandably no longer wants to spend the bulk of their lives in traffic or performing the same repetitive task with no room to expand their horizons. The lesson of 2006 is to ensure that the CEO, peers, and all organisation members understand that automation is not a simple bolt-on. If automation is to deliver on its promise, then implementations will require the involvement of everyone in the business to work in close collaboration with the CIO and the technology team. 

Fortunately, the lessons of the years that followed 2006 put CIOs in a good place. Those waterfall ERP and CRM projects are now broken down into iterative steps, the big outsourcing deals are now less popular, and the technology literacy of those managing suppliers has improved.

In recent months I have had the opportunity to see automations, such as robotic process automation (RPA) successfully deployed in financial services and healthcare organisations. Strong involvement of the entire organisation, in particular the team that will be closely impacted by automation was central to why these projects succeed. With CEOs demanding high levels of change and technologists’ having inherent desire to build solutions, there is a risk of a return to 2006, where IT gets back into the habit of doubling down on the deployment and takes its eye off the communications and use of cross-functional teams. The latter, pleasingly, is now the common operating model of transformational technology leaders and their teams, but I write this as the community’s critical friend and a desire to see the CIO role and technology continually moving up and forwards in the business.