The discussion at a recent digital leader dinner - hosted by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT - was spiced with perspectives from the worlds of insurance, engineering, utilities, construction, recruitment and transportation.

I had the pleasure to chair the dinner. In respect of my pre-planned intentions, the only thing that kept to plan was the order in which the courses were served! Such is the risk of inviting very informed and engaging people to an event such as this.

There was recognition that the technology market trends should not be seen as threats in terms of the already stretched budgets of chief information officers (CIOs), but an opportunity to increase one’s strategic relevance by demonstrating how these trends can be turned into business value.

The thorny issue of why this in the main was not already being done, again highlighted the reality that many CIOs are too focused on operational IT matters (‘run the business’) than how new technology can be harnessed to disrupt the markets in one’s favour.

It was felt that there needed to be someone at board level who should take responsibility for the strategic use of both IT and information. Interestingly, it was also recognised and accepted that the role of chief digital officer has emerged to fill the void left by inattentive technology management-focused CIOs. Technology management is important, but the CIO cannot be both operationally and strategically focused.

It was pointed out that being a genuine information leader was going to enhance a CIO’s chance of joining the c-suite, but the less obvious opportunity relates to collaboration. As organisations look to sweat their talent, providing the tools that enable talented people to collaborate as if the organisation had one super brain would be a real source of competitive advantage.

As the conversation transitioned from technology to culture, the theme of business agility cropped up. One can only build so much agility into the processes. Fundamentally the agility comes from the staff; the challenge being that if an organisation has carefully built its model with control and process as the main pillars, then those people who deviate from this will be rebuked rather than rewarded.

In such organisations creativity and initiative are diseases to be eradicated. Such a culture will tend to ignore tactical opportunities because those closest to the scene of the opportunity will not want to deviate from the cog-turning for which they are paid. And even for those that recognise a tactical opportunity, the dilemma of seeking forgiveness rather than permission is just too much to bear.

The attendees generally felt that in such extreme cases, it would be unwise to launch a culture change initiative. Better to let the old model run, whilst at the same time creating a version two of the business that is indeed more agile.

The issue of attracting young talent into traditional organisations was flagged. Buying a few bean bags and installing a video console in reception won’t cut it. This is going to be a critical issue for many organisations if they do not start addressing their culture portfolio today.

There was some lamentation on the ‘attention’ capabilities of young people. But what might look like a treatable condition from a digital immigrant’s perspective, to a digital native such seemingly superficial skimming and polling are critical to making sense and navigating the huge sea of data we are exposed to twenty four seven.

To summarise our findings you might say that there is a very strong correlation between technology evolution and cultural upheaval. The new CIO will be perhaps part technologist and part anthropologist.

About the author

Ade McCormack is a former technologist who is now an advisor on the digital economy and digital leadership. He has an opinion column in the Financial Times advising business leaders on IT issues, and a column in the CIO magazine. As part of the BCS’s portfolio of services, Ade coaches CIOs to become digital leaders.