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Inside IT With Tech Visionary Charles Araujo

By Jack Rosenberger
Charles Araujo

Inside IT With Tech Visionary Charles Araujo

By Jack Rosenberger

When it comes to describing a future vision of IT, Charles Araujo often talks about a new style of leadership, one in which CIOs and IT leaders focus less on technical skills and more on business and personal skills, such as the ability to listen and learn from others, be open and accountable, and create a personal relationship with the members of his or her teams. As the founder and CEO of The IT Transformation Institute, Araujo has articulated this vision in his popular book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know is About to Change, and articles for CIO Insight like "The Courage of the Transparent CIO" and "Are You Brave Enough to be an Intimate Leader?"

The role of IT in the enterprise has changed, Araujo says, largely due to the consumerization of IT, IT's increased importance to the success of nearly every business, and the easy availability of IT services from outside service providers. Instead of being the sole source of tech resources for a company, IT departments are finding themselves in a new and challenging role, one that involves working with other departments to help their achieve their goals and drive the business, as opposed to supplying core technologies. To help IT adjust to these new conditions, Araujo urges CIOs to create a shared team vision for the future, and to develop "a next-generation IT organization"—one that is a learning organization, as well as disciplined, transparent, and intimate—and that can successfully adopt to this new, business-oriented role.

For Araujo's latest thoughts on the future of IT, digital leaders and his new "Transform IT" web show with Intel, CIO Insight Managing Editor Jack Rosenberger recently interviewed him about these and other topics, plus his professional experiences, such as the time early in his career when, as a recently divorced parent, he brought his young children to the office on the weekend because he had to finish an urgent project, and gained a valuable lesson about leadership when he unexpectedly encountered his CIO.

CIO Insight: The opening sentence of The Quantum Age of IT is "IT as we know it is dead." Why do you think traditional IT is kaput and how do you see IT to be changing?

Charles Araujo: In the book, I lay out three market forces that I believe have changed everything for IT organizations. The first market force is what we now commonly call the "Consumerization of IT." As companies like Google, Facebook and Apple took technology into the mainstream, they fundamentally changed the perspective of IT's customers in terms of how they expected to interact with their technology but also how they expected to interact with their service providers. Prior to this modern era of technology, the predominant technology experience existed solely within the walls of the enterprise, and the IT organization controlled it. But as consumer technologies proliferated, they took control of that experience and completely changed how our customers saw us and what they expected from us.

The second market force is what I call the "Criticality of IT." When I grew up in the business, IT was important, but was relegated to the back office. Technology was used to drive efficiency and the speed of transactions, but it was pretty invisible to our organization's customers. When technology failed, it was inconvenient, but that was about it. Today, technology has moved from the back office to front and center of everything. Technology literally powers every single business transaction, every customer interaction and virtually all aspects of the customer experience. On the one hand, that's great. What we do is important and valuable. But the problem is that as this happened, our customers began to feel more and more vulnerable. They understood that they relied on this technology for everything and yet because of the historical relationship between IT and "the business," it was still pretty much a black box to them. They came to realize that they were relying, for their very livelihood, on technology that they didn't understand, which was being run by people that they didn't trust. And that left them scared out of their mind and looking for ways to retake control of their own destiny

And this led us to the final market force, the one that broke the proverbial camel's back. It's what I call the "Competition for IT." Until the last few years, if an enterprise needed technology to get something done, they had to go to corporate IT. They really didn't have any choice. We were the sole source supplier of technology to the enterprise. But beginning with Salesforce, which was quickly followed by a small army of what we now call cloud providers, that all changed. Suddenly, our customers had what they had been seeking: choice. They found that if IT was being "uncooperative" or telling them no, they could simply bypass IT and purchase the technology solution they wanted from one of these cloud providers.

When I put these three market forces together, I came to the conclusion that there had been a fundamental sea change in the environment in which we existed. Our customer's expectations had changed; they were relying on technology for everything, but they now had choices. And that meant we were going to have to operate differently if we wanted to remain relevant. We simply cannot keep doing things the way we always have and expect our customers to still be our customers. So, I believe that IT—at least as we've known it—is dead. And it's going to be replaced with a very different type of IT organization. One that is smaller, more agile, more customer-focused—and one that spends a lot less time running core technologies.

Inside IT With Tech Visionary Charles Araujo

CIO Insight: People frequently ask you at technology conferences and other events about the future of IT and where is it headed.

I believe that the IT organization of the future is going to be defined more by what they don't do, rather than what they do. As technology continues to proliferate exponentially, we're entering an era that I call the "Internet of Everything." Everything is going to be driven by technology and everything is going to be connected. Technology will truly be everywhere—even in ways that we can't imagine today. And we, the IT function, will simply be unable to handle it all. It will just be too much. Today, if it touches technology, generally speaking it is the IT function that is expected to run it. But we're already seeing that change and break away. I believe that process is simply going to accelerate. I believe that within the next five to 10 years, 80 percent of what today's IT organization does will exist and be delivered from outside the walls of the enterprise. Only 20 percent of today's technology stack will remain within the domain control of IT. Everything else will be provided by some form of a third-party supplier—and, in many cases, it will be delivered directly to our customers without our involvement.

But that remaining 20 percent, the parts that the IT organization remains directly responsible for will be only those things that provide strategic, differentiating value to the organization. There is a lot of technology that is vitally important to the operation of the business, but which provides no differentiation in the market place. I love to use email as an example. Email is critical to almost all of us. I know that I live on email. But that doesn't make it strategic to my business. Having a great email system doesn't make a client choose our organization over anyone else's. That's true for virtually everybody. It's an important technology. I need it to be there and I need it to work reliably, but it provides no market differentiation to my organization. So why should I invest any of my capital dollars or, most importantly, the attention of my highly paid IT staff, worrying about it? I shouldn't. I should let some service provider give me that function as a service and focus my internal IT resources on something that can give me an edge in the market.

The reality is that technology is one of the few remaining drivers of competitive differentiation in the marketplace. Yet most IT organizations are spending all of their time and energy on the 80 percent of the technology stack that provide no market differentiation. That will change. It has to. It's why we're seeing the rise of the roles like the chief digital officer—that is just a sign that organizations know this to be true and have become frustrated that IT can't deliver it. So they're creating new functions to get that job done. But that's the only job that will matter in the future. So IT is going to need to rapidly start shedding those "lines of business" that provide no differentiating value and focus all of their significant resources and talent to those technologies that will provide an advantage to the organization.

CIO Insight: In The Quantum Age of IT, you discuss how technology leadership in today's digital era will extend beyond IT. What do you think it means to be a digital leader today?

As technology has infiltrated every aspect of business, we cannot expect that IT will "own" the technology conversation. In fact, it's a recipe for failure. While we've always talked about being a trusted partner, that's really been mostly internal marketing hype. We have done little to engender that trust, nor have we done much to hold our business counterparts accountable for their part of the relationship. I believe that in this new era, whether you find yourself on the business side of things or on the IT side of things, you will need to see yourself as a digital leader. Really, it just means that we're each living on separate sides of the same coin. There will be no separation. Just different roles and focuses.

Fundamentally, being a digital leader will come down to two things. First, it will be the ability to see technology through the lens of its value contribution. Today, many business people tend to see technology strictly as an automation engine. Tech people, on the other hand, tend to see technology as an end to itself; we just love the technology for its own sake. But a digital leader will see something bigger and grander. They will see technology predominately as an enabler of value transformation. They will have the ability to see any given technology, which by definition will be developed by a technology provider outside of the enterprise, and understand how it can be combined with a unique business process to unleash some kind of competitive value to the organization. Being a digital leader will be to master the art of creating unique, differentiating value from piles of commoditized technologies.

It will also mean learning to operate in a different kind of world. It is not only the IT function that is in the midst of a fundamental sea change. The basic rules of business are breaking down as we transition from the industrial era to the digital era (or whatever you want to call what's coming next). Our core structures are beginning to shift because the hierarchical management models that we have organized around are proving to be too slow and lumbering to allow us to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace. Slowly, all companies are starting to think and act more like technology startups. And that has deep ramifications for what it will mean to be a leader in this era. It will require skills that are much more focused on influencing people, creating far-reaching visions, being comfortable with rapid change, and so on. So, a digital leader will also be the professional who can most effectively operate in this dynamic, shifting, networked, non-structured world and still find ways to create these kinds of game-changing innovations using the same technologies that their competitors are using.

Inside IT With Tech Visionary Charles Araujo

CIO Insight: What do digital leaders do that non-digital leaders don't do?

More than anything, I think that the difference between say a traditional leader and a digital leader is a mindset. A digital leader doesn't need to have anyone reporting to them to get big things done. They aren't waiting around for someone to give them orders. They are actively exploring how technology can be used to change anything and everything—even it was just changed yesterday—if it will create a competitive value for the organization. They have no romantic notions of how "things have always been done." They are simply unrelenting in their quest to find opportunities and then build ad-hoc teams to seize on them as quickly as possible.

CIO Insight: How can CIOs and IT leaders best enable transformation in their organization? What are the things that should be top of mind for them?

Well, the first thing is that they have to really understand what that means. I think that transformation has become such a buzz word that it's at risk of not meaning anything. Doing a technology refresh is not a transformation. Transformation is about fundamentally moving your organization rapidly into this future. It means challenging all of your current operating models and paradigms and examining everything you do through this lens of differentiating value.

But assuming that an IT leader is present and ready to move forward, the next thing that he or she has to realize is just what this means to their teams. It means that everything is going to change—and that has the potential to scare the dickens out of folks. So they need to treat it with the gravity that it deserves and rather than treat it as a "project" to treat it as a unifying call to action. It should be the equivalent of John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon within the next decade. IT leaders need to inspiring their teams to rise to the challenge and to step boldly into the future. There's going to be a lot of heavy lifting to do and a lot of fear to overcome. It will only happen with passion and inspiration. So that's the beginning.

Next, they need to realize that their teams are almost certainly ill-equipped for this journey. They are going to need to pay some serious attention to the leadership, innovation, collaboration and business skills of their teams—the skills that I describe in The Quantum Age of IT. These skills become the building blocks of a transformation. Also, IT leaders need to be focused on developing leaders at every level of the organization.

Finally, they need to take a structured and programmatic approach to a transformation. They will need to invest in the process of transformation. You cannot just talk about transformation and will it into existence. Any type of significant organizational change only happens over long periods of time, especially in large organizations. So IT leaders need to put a structure in place to have a clear vision of what they intent to transform into and then create a mechanism to keep the entire organization marching in that direction. They need to build bridges, break down the silos, create deep impassioned engagement and continually refocus as their transformational effort evolves.

It's a lot of work, but it's the only path to continued relevance.

CIO Insight: What were some of the professional hurdles early in your career? How did you overcome them?

I guess you could say that I began my IT career in high school. I wanted a car, but I didn't want to work at a fast-food restaurant, so I wrote an order management system in COBOL and sold it to a local manufacturing firm. I've always had a love and fascination for technology. And for the longest time, I thought that was what it was all about. I remember getting so frustrated when talking to someone and they just couldn't see how cool some technology was—it was like they were stuck in the past.

This became a major problem for me. At some point, though, something changed. Maybe it was having kids at a young age that made me see things differently—you grow up quick that way—but whatever it was, I suddenly started to see that the real role of technology was to serve humanity. That might sound a little new age, but it wasn't anything that far out there. I just started caring a lot more about people than the technology, both in terms of my "customers" who were using the technology and in how I managed my teams. I found that when I focused on those two sets of people, ironically enough, the technology worked better. I wish I could say that there was this one sentient moment, but it happened gradually. Then one day I woke up and found that I couldn't really call myself a technologist anymore. I still loved technology and I was still technical, but technology was no longer my focus. The problem was that kind of left me without a home! So I had to begin to forge my own path.

CIO Insight: What are some leadership lessons you've learned in your IT career?

The single greatest leadership lesson of my career is that leadership is about people. It's not about getting something done or even getting somewhere. I can get something done or go somewhere by myself. Leadership is about getting a group of people to go somewhere with you—someplace that neither you nor they can reach on their own. It's about bringing together a group of people around a shared vision of some brighter future and helping each of them fulfill their role in getting the team to this place. I think that's what makes great leadership so difficult—it requires that you put your focus on everyone and everything else other than yourself. Leadership is rarely this hard-charging thing you see in the movies, where the leader charges forward without regard for anyone or anything. Much more often, it's about having this inspiring vision of the future and then being willing to give it away, allowing it to become bigger than you. It's about allowing others to make it their own and then your job becomes to help them both achieve it for themselves and to help them give it away themselves.

It is really about humility and seeing yourself as a servant to the vision and to the people pursuing it. And that's hard for a lot of people to understand and accept.

Inside IT With Tech Visionary Charles Araujo

CIO Insight: Tell our readers about servant leadership and why it is so important to you?

The idea of servant leadership is just this idea that to be a great leader you must see yourself as a servant. Not in the subservient kind of way, but that your overarching goal is to be of service to the cause and to the team. It's easiest to explain with an example.

I remember one time early in my career I was working during a weekend. I was recently divorced and it was my weekend with the kids, but we were in the middle of this crazy project and the work had to get done, so I brought my young kids into the office. I was trying to keep them busy and get my work done at the same time (and I was mostly unsuccessfully on both counts) when my CIO unexpectedly walked in. I was petrified. I thought I'd get in trouble for having them there. But to my surprise, she took the kids into her office and played and colored with them. (The funny part was that she really wasn't a "kid person.")

I felt very uncomfortable about the situation and after a while I walked into her office and told her that I'd go home and come back in the middle of the night to get my work done. She looked at me and told me to go back to work and that she would handle the kids. And I'll never forget what she said next. She said, "Look, Charlie, your job is to get this crazy project done. I know I've asked a lot of you and the team. That makes it my job to do whatever I need to do to make that possible. And right now, that means that it's my job to watch your kids so that you can get this done. So, go work. We're good." And for the next several hours, this highly paid CIO played with my kids so that I could work. I'm sure she spent the night catching up on what she had intended to do that afternoon. But there was no ego, no sense of self-righteousness, no sense that watching my kids was beneath her. She saw her role as to be of service to the people on her team that needed to get the job done. That's servant leadership. And I believe it is one of the most powerful forces on earth. I moved heaven and earth on that project. And make no mistake, I did it for her. That's the power of true, authentic servant leadership.

CIO Insight: You recently began doing a series of web shows with Intel about IT transformation. What are some of the key ideas you've been discussing in the Intel IT Center web shows?

After The Quantum Age of IT came out, I got invited to speak all over the world about it. And as part of that process I had the opportunity to meet some amazing people with their own amazing stories of personal transformation. These are people that I believe in many ways are living in the future that I'm talking about.

And as I was talking to them, I always felt almost guilty. I had the privilege to hear these stories, but I felt that everyone should hear them. Then at some point, Intel discovered us (that was pretty cool) and we started talking about ways that we could jointly spread the messages from my book, and we hit on this idea of doing a web show in which I would interview all of these amazing people that I've met and share their stories with the world.

So that's what we've been doing. It's called the "Transform IT Show" and we're just getting started. I interview IT leaders, business executives, futurists, authors and other folks that I think have a unique perspective on what the future will hold for IT and business leaders. But I also work hard to make it very practical. I'm much more interested in their personal journeys and I try to distill direct advice and lessons from their career that our audience can apply and put into practice immediately in their careers.

We have a lot of fun on the show and, so far, the reviews have been great. People are finding them educational, inspiring and practical. I hope that your readers tune in and check it out.

CIO Insight: What have you learned by doing the "Transform IT" web shows with Intel?

Well, first and foremost, I have a newfound respect for how much work goes into producing television shows and the like. We decided that we didn't want to do the Google Hangout thing even though it's a great technology, so we actually show up on location with a film crew. We shoot with three cameras, lights, sound, the whole bit. The whole process from scheduling, filming, editing and prepping for distribution takes about five weeks per show. I had no idea what I was getting myself into!

But what has been most fascinating is how universal the ideas and advice are. Almost every time, I've had the film crew walk up and shake hands with both me and the guest thanking us for the great life advice. In the end, while we're focused on our little part of things, the fundamental issues that we're grappling with is how to be a better leader and how to be able to prepare for an uncertain future—the things that everyone is grappling with these days. So the shows have been a lot of fun, and I personally learn something during every episode. It's been great.

About the Author

Jack Rosenberger is the managing editor of CIO Insight. You can follow him on Twitter via @CIOInsight. To read his previous CIO Insight article, "Three Reasons to Revisit Your Tablet Strategy," click here. 

This article was last updated on 07-01-2016