CIO as enabler: Building an ecosystem of innovation partners

There’s significant debate about the future of the CIO role, but one thing is clear: Digital leaders who want to be successful must look beyond the firewall and link up with an ecosystem of vendor partners, startups, and other organizations to ensure the enterprise thrives.

The reason for this shift is simple: While CIOs can often call on talented teams of internal IT professionals to deliver business solutions, no technology department can be expected to generate every innovation necessary to compete in a fast-moving digital age. Instead, many CIOs are moving beyond “not invented here” syndrome to embrace a variety of partnerships aimed at transforming IT into an enabler of business innovation.

For those seeking to make this shift, the starting point, says Keith Woolley, chief digital information officer at the University of Bristol, is a strong grasp of your organization’s capabilities and a deep understanding of what the business needs to achieve — and that requires going beyond the confines of IT.

“If you’re someone who doesn’t understand business, finance, human resources, and audits, then don’t become a CIO, because my job is about all of those things,” he says. “I would say, right now, I’m a technologist last. The conversations I’m having with executives are not about technology, but about how we’re going to empower people.”

Whether he’s talking about how data is used in the research process or how digitalization will change the role of universities, Woolley listens deeply to business conversations in an effort to help find answers to the big questions. “Being this kind of enabler is very different to being someone who’s only thinking about what technology systems you’re going to use to deliver a desktop,” he says.

The good news, says Bev White, CEO at recruitment specialist Nash Squared, is that the rest of the business is increasingly aware of the benefits that an effective CIO can enable. Her firm’s recently released Digital Leadership Report shows more than two-thirds (69%) of global technology leaders are members of the operational board or executive management team.

After many years of trying — and sometimes failing — to convince their C-suite peers about the critical role of IT leadership, CIOs are now seen as equals to some of their long-established senior colleagues, such as CFOs and COOs. White says this elevated position presents an exciting opportunity.  

“I think CIO roles are changing dramatically and in a good way,” she says. “Being the bridge between technology and business is crucial, especially now, when the CEO is asking, ‘What are we doing about generative AI? What are we doing about cybersecurity? What are we doing about the transformation of the business?’”

White says being an enabler isn’t a straightforward role, either. It’s crucial CIOs are curious about change and the broad range of IT systems and services on the market. But what’s even more important is having an ability to take innovative ideas into the boardroom and articulate how they’ll help the organization overcome challenges.

“Being that gateway between technology and business has never been more important,” she says. “I think picking fantastic relationships with suppliers is key, so you get ahead of the curve and your board’s briefed ahead of what trends are coming up. I think modern CIOs must be a strong consultant to the business.”

The power of partnership

Sasha Jory, CIO at insurer Hastings Direct, agrees that effective partnerships are crucial to the work her IT team undertakes. “And I mean partnerships as opposed to supplier relationships,” she says. “We focus on creating relationships that are deep and partnered. So, we partner with Snowflake, Microsoft, EY, and Guidewire.”

These companies are Hastings’ core technology suppliers and systems integrators, and the IT organization aligns with them to ensure technologies are utilized effectively. Most of all, Jory tells her team it’s good to ask for help. They look to these partners for support, but she also expects her suppliers to challenge the IT team’s preconceived ideas.

“No one knows everything,” she says. “With the pace technology is moving, we’re aware that as a relatively small organization — we’re only 4,000 people — we’ll never be able to cover it all or have the skills to do everything. So, partnering and having a close relationship where you’re listening, learning, and understanding is vital to success.”

That’s a sentiment that resonates strongly with Jarrod Phipps, CIO at auto specialist Holman, who says smart CIOs focus on developing great front-end experiences. He says that trend will grow during the next decade, so he advises the next generation of IT leaders to prioritize extending their ecosystem of potential partners.

“Get the heck out of your office,” he says. “Go talk to customers, go talk to employees, your peers, leaders outside of your organization — just go out and speak to people. Get outside your comfort zone and be okay with the fact you don’t know everything, and that’s all right. Build a well-rounded view and learn from other people’s mistakes and successes.”

A crucial source of insight for those knowledge-building exercises will be startups, says Nash Squared’s White. While these nascent businesses might not have the scale of their enterprise counterparts, digital leaders can learn huge amounts from smaller businesses.

“Tech right now is an exciting place to be,” she says. “Finding out that small businesses have these incredible ideas that you can bring into your business and spark new services is fantastic. You can work with a network of these businesses to achieve an incredible result.”

Embracing the leading edge

That’s certainly the case at PepsiCo, where the drinks giant works with a range of startup companies to achieve big results in important areas, such as sustainability. The company has scaled more than 30 startups in more than 200 countries so far.

Take the company’s partnership with technology firm WINT, which uses AI to prevent water leaks in PepsiCo factories. Estimates suggest the system can cut annual water consumption by as much as 25%. In Turkey, PepsiCo, Pulse Industrial, and BrenPower are working together to monitor and detect failures in steam traps in the company’s plants through an AI system.

PepsiCo is also working with UBQ Materials to turn unsorted household waste into a bio-based thermoplastic that’s used in product display stands. At a time of what seems like almost constant change, Nigel Richardson, SVP and CIO Europe at PepsiCo, says big companies like his have a lot to learn from a wide ecosystem of partners.

“The past few years have proven that history is no longer a good predictor of the future,” he says. “Right now, our industry and operating environment are changing fast. Technologies that were once the realm of science fiction are becoming reality, reshaping everything about the way we live and work.”.

PepsiCo’s response over the past couple of years, says Richardson, has been to address those realities head on, with their brands and scale as a force for good and growth. “We’re constantly pushing ourselves to look outside at other leading-edge companies, vendors, industries, and even the world to get inspired and see what we can learn and apply,” he says.

It’s a similar story at Audi, where the automotive giant has established a Production Lab to find innovations that can help boost efficiency and quality across the company’s plants. The Lab, created in 2012, tests whether technologies that aren’t yet used in production processes have the potential for mass adoption.

“Our role is to try and figure out what technologies are out there,” says Henning Löser, head of Audi Production Lab. “We’re transforming from internal combustion engines to battery electric vehicles. This shift is challenging because we have new technologies coming up to produce these battery electric vehicles, but it’s also a great opportunity because we’re changing our production lines.”

Löser says the aim is to use a VMware hyperconverged cloud platform to test technologies, such as virtual reality headsets and large-scale production systems, under lab conditions. “We are the nerds,” he says. “We get to play around with new technologies, and by doing that, we figure out what’s useful.”

Back at the University of Bristol, Woolley says his institution also dedicates significant resources to innovation. Working with startups isn’t just a matter of bringing in external expertise. The university also helps to nurture talent through Engine Shed, a specialist initiative in the heart of Bristol that began as a collaboration between itself and Bristol City Council in 2013. It houses a members’ lounge, five meeting rooms, four event spaces, three coworking spaces, and 18 offices, and each year, more than 30,000 people use it to connect, collaborate, and innovate. Woolley says the aim of the initiative is to bring people together.  

“It’s where we support our spinouts,” he says, adding that the initative aspires to be an “incubator of incubators.”

“We’re constantly looking for innovation and thinking about how we can help others create products and take them to market. I’m genuinely proud that we make a difference,” he says.

Woolley encourages other CIOs to think about how they can foster an innovation network, too: “Unless you understand where the markets are going, how can you be sure about whether you’re implementing the right technologies to enable the change the business requires?”

As a member of the university’s executive board, Woolley works with his C-level peers to think about how technologies might help the institution meet its goals and deliver better experiences for academics and students. His says this tightly defined focus on business leadership is what defines the successful CIO enabler.

“The IT leadership piece is the day job that I lead and support,” he says. “But as a senior executive, I must understand how technology fits into the wider organizational strategy. And I think CIOs who don’t become business enablers are going to be dinosaurs very quickly.”

Business IT Alignment, Emerging Technology, Innovation, IT Leadership, Startups