Digital Literacy – A Corporate Perspective?

A recent blog post by Vincent Rousselet entitled “A Tale Of Digital Literacy”  resonated greatly with me.  I particularly liked the discussion on whether Instagram was a force for ill between his daughters!  However, it starting me thinking about two questions: what exactly is the definition of digital literacy and how does that relate to the corporate IT?  A quick meander around the Internet courtesy of the ubiquitous Google and I found this excellent blog post by Cindy Plunkett, “What Is Digital Literacy?” .  There is a wealth of excellent material on this site and on many others debating the societal imperatives in the digital age.  I particularly liked the quote from Alvin Toffler I came across on what being illiterate in the twenty first century means, namely “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”.


I do despair of those in the corporate world that equate mastery of the digital world with knowing all about the latest and greatest technology, generally focused on the latest end user device. I tend to label the technology fad obsessed senior executive as being a devotee of the “Magpie Approach” to technology.  These technology enthusiasts sadly confuse the allure of the latest shiny thing with considered adoption of technology to derive business benefit with an appropriate assessment of the associated risks of being an early adopter.  Now I am not arguing that being an early adopter of a new technology is a bad thing, what I am arguing is that sitting at the pointy end of technology advances is a high risk strategy that needs to be underpinned by a clear sighted assessment of the risk to reward equation.  Generally my heart sinks in the corporate context when I hear people enthusing about the latest tablet, smartphone, laptop, application or business solution.  In my view once people view technology with the same perspective most of us apply to a new pen or other commonplace tool they are probably taking a balanced view. If they enthuse first about the business benefits that the new shiny IT object can deliver and then make a passing comment to exercise their inner geek, my alarm sensors see nothing worthy of triggering an alert!

Digital literacy in the corporate context needs the senior executives to be focused on leverage exciting benefit from the unexciting and the workforce trained and empowered to make effective use of the technology tooling. Clearly a sense of buzz generated from shiny new devices can be a powerful motivator as part of the adoption process within the business change programme, but it should just be the means to an end not the means in itself.  So ultimately I am arguing that the digitally literate senior executive is someone that understands the value to be gained from the digital world but is not unduly driven by the glittering latest shiny new technology.  I am arguing that once you view technology as a tool to be deployed in the digital age to enable and empower your business, then that is when as a business leader you are digitally literate.

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This post was previously published on the Business Value Exchange.

Who Are The Visionaries Of Transformation?

“So what is the right team to mobilise to deliver a technology enabled business transformation then?”  This was a question posed in an email I received shortly after my last contribution to the BVEX site.  Just to be irritating I answered the question with a question of my own; “thanks for reading and posing the question but could you not use the comment feature on the site?!”.   A critical part of the answer lies within the wording of the question, specifically “business transformation”.  My starting point on mobilising any transformation initiative is to understand how the business will engage, how actively and to confirm that it has a clear view on the benefits to be obtained and how they will be measured.

Once I have those parameters defined then I can start to look at the skills balance the team needs to have to be successful.  As we will all appreciate the enabling technology must be deployed effectively to provide a solid base before we can then drive the required organisational and/or individual behavioural changes to use it.   However, I am extremely wary of having transformation programme leads that are fans of technology or even worse fanatics.  My best results have been achieved when the programme lead views the technology as simply a tool and maintains a dispassionate perspective,  much like most of us would regard the choice of different types of pen.  They just need to understand the technology to a sufficient level to be able to lead those in the team for whom that is their specialist skill.

My primary focus for the transformation lead is to find someone able to communicate the vision underlying the intent and make the business change meaningful to those delivering, engaging or being impacted.  Once you catch the imagination of people with the vision then they will commit and provide the persistence that is often needed to achieve success as there are always, repeat always, bumps in the road with any programme with a significant technological dimension.


Personalising the transformation and visibly living the values set is critical and in terms of business engagement, if you can have your CEO provide that role model then you have materially de-risked your programme.  You want to build a cadre of committed individuals driving towards the desired outcomes and impact on the business.  A key success factor that enables that peer group pressure is well defined measurement;  tracking the right metrics both in terms of the delivery of the programme but also in terms of the business benefits derived as you embed the business change.  Clearly there will be people that need a deal of persuasion within your programme team and the wider business.  It is vital to have a strong focus on the organisational change key enablers as well as having strategies to handle the resisters, including those that are hidden or passive.  I recently found an excellent exploration of this area by McKinsey entitled “Tapping The Power Of Hidden Influencers” which is well worth a read.

My key argument is that you absolutely need to mobilise a team that can deliver the enabling technology to scope, budget, deadline and quality.  However, to derive the business benefits from that enabling technology you need more than “just” those qualities, you need a team equipped to drive the organisation and behavioural change skills by moving engagement into commitment and then into enactment.  The tendency of technology enabled business transformation programmes to fail to deliver the business benefits, even when they succeed in delivering the technology dimension, highlights the multifaceted team that success requires.  Even if you do mobilise the optimal multi skilled team you must have answered an even more fundamental question, are the leaders within that business environment are committed to the change and ready to lead from the front as compelling role models?   So in short even before start thinking about the optimal skills mix and mobilise the team make sure you have verified that those commissioning the transformation understand clearly what the journey will entail and are able to holistically articulate the destination.


This article was first posted on the Business Value Exchange.

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Success To One: Failure To Another

The very moment I sat down my dinner guest’s agitation could clearly no longer be contained.  “A failure, a failure?  I have delivered a £15 million IT transformation project to scope, to budget and to deadline!  A miracle based on the company’s track record over the last few years!  A failure!” he declared bitterly.   By the main course the agitation had subsided somewhat and the facts had become clearer and I was beginning to see the nub of the divergence between what he saw as his team’s big success and what his CEO’s viewed as failing.  The critical word was the often misused “T” word, transformation. shutterstock_84273679 The project was extremely complex and had been a real challenge to deliver across many sites integrating together a number of vendors whilst managing a seamless transition from the legacy platform.  However, it became clear the longer we talked that there had indeed been virtually no focus on the wider business benefits beyond that directly derived from the new technology solution.    The more I asked annoying questions using phrases like “benefits value chain”, “stakeholder engagement” and “holistic business case” the more obvious it became that whilst the CEO clearly felt he’d invested in a full blown business transformation initiative, his company had actually mobilised and enacted a technology refresh project.  There appeared to have been no shared vision of the outcomes expected from the investment and certainly nothing evolved from that vision into measurable successful delivery of the business value.  It was clear to me that the project team had worked extremely hard and had delivered what can depressingly be a rare event; a technology refresh project within budget to scope and deadline. I am sure we have all come across variants of this tale during our careers, perhaps even been to some degree in the position of my friend as we learned our trade and worked up to a CIO position.  Whenever I hear the word transformation I am now pre-programmed to question the scope, the stakeholder engagement and how success will be recognised at the end of the project.  To some extent this is based on bitter experience as I carry some scars from earlier in my career, don’t we all if we are honest? But it is also because there are so many cautionary case studies in the technology industry that arguably there can be no excuse to repeat the history of others.  Yet there seems to be a steady flow of new examples of transformational woe and these are not errors made by the slightly dim and deranged, these are errors made by highly capable business and technology leaders.  The sparkle of a technologically  challenging project can still blind us to the real business drivers and indeed to the truism that mostly the technology is the easier element.  The hard part is driving behavioural change in individuals, in teams and in organisations.  Indeed I think we can argue that technology mastery whilst often a key element to delivering business change is not the most critical aspect.  That label is reserved for the often over-looked element of excellent project management, a viewpoint argued by this interesting article published recently by Forbes.  However, equally I could offer up examples of talented managers that don’t seem to grasp how to deliver programmes that do have material technology components but which also demand the ability to deliver a holistic vision and achieve organisational change leading to enhanced business value.  So the “T” word needs to be treated with respect and the right team mobilised to truly deliver transformational change rather than just change.   Post was previously published on the Business Value Exchange. Image provided by Shutterstock

Some Statistics – 2013 Review

Many thanks to all those that took the time to read my ramblings in 2013! prepared a 2013 annual report for my blog which I thought might be fun to share.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 23 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Buyer Beware?

A recent interim role opportunity advert listed among the required skills “extensive mergers and acquisition (M&A) experience” but on further discussion the need really seemed to be focused on systems integration.  Clearly the ability to plan a sensible integration of two or more corporate IT landscapes into a strategic coherent whole is critical in a M&A context, including re-conforming previous decisions on delivery models still meet the needs of the organisation.  However, there is equally value, potentially more value,  to be gained from engaging the CIO prior to the deal being struck rather than simply to handle the consequences.  If the acquisition is not a technology company it can be very easy to ignore hidden value or costs within its IT assets, a relatively trite example being that buying a company today with only Microsoft XP deployed on very aged computers will very quickly present a potentially material investment cost.  In a previous role I was taken along to a newly acquired company in Germany by my regional CEO on the Monday morning we took possession.  The employees joining the company were there bright and early in the very smart office but there was no IT kit on any desk as the detail of the deal had failed to actually acquire those assets; hard to believe but a true story.  It was this incident that made it very easy for me to insist on the IT team being engaged with any acquisition deal right from the start and being part of the final buy decision review process.

If anyone is needing convincing of the criticality of IT and its leader on successful M&A then point them at this excellent McKinsey article from 2011, Understanding the strategic value of IT in M&A.  If M&A is all about finding synergies then the McKinsey statistic in this article that over 50% of those synergies tend to relate to IT probably wins any debate on why CIOs should be actively engaged from the twinkle in the eye stage through to the fully integrated with no seams showing outcome.   This argument holds true if you are part of the divesting team equally and a compelling articulation of the strength of the corporate technology and how it is designed to enable rapid and low cost integration could well help close the deal.

I do struggle to understand why the CIO role in M&A is open to question but at a recent industry event I found a number of CIOs that were feeling excluded from the decision process and very concerned at the potential consequences that they would inherit and have to resolve.  The common pitfall it seemed to me listening to the debate was to express the imperative in technology terms rather than using business language and describing the concerns in terms of business outcomes that would be thwarted as well as the clear attention grabber of how much money getting the IT assessment and integration plan wrong could require.  I’m not sure it can really be that simple, but then again perhaps it might just be that straightforward?

A Rose By Any Other Name?

Over the summer there has been an increasing number of references to a new technology centric role in the IT press, the Chief Digital Officer (CDO).  I’ve come across a few heated debates on Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) forums where people carrying either (or both) of those role titles are discussing whether actually they should become a CDO instead or if it is a new name for the Chief Marketing Officer.  It certainly risks seeing a large number of “chiefs” but is there a meaningful distinction being signaled by the emerging new role title?  In an interesting article on the CIO website, “Chief Digital Officer – here to stay or flash in the pan?“,  one CDO argues that CIOs and CTOs “don’t focus on the core business” and tend to “look at technology for technology’s sake” which would certainly raise the hackles of people in those roles!  Gartner predict that by 2015 some 25% of companies will have a CDO in post; there is even now a Chief Digital Officer Club.

What I think is going on with the CDO title is that it is signalling a focus on the external market and the how your company builds and leverages its digital assets for competitive advantage.  There have been people carrying the titles of CIO and CTO in many companies that have had that external focus and been divorced from the internal IT operations and service delivery.  However, I think the use of the “digital” word recognises that this new role is also in the traditional Chief Marketing Office territory too and declares that remit legitimate.  There has been much debate over recent years of the growing overlap in the era of cloud computing and social media of the IT and Marketing landscapes, with a clear convergence point where there is focus on embracing the ever evolving and growing digital world.  Indeed this focus on the digital world and economy was recently clearly highlighted by a global survey report from McKinsey entitled Bullish On Digital which is well worth a read.

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Ultimately what is important is that there is someone in a company ensuring that it is optimally positioned to create competitive advantage from technology and equipped compete in the digital world whatever that means specific to its business sector.  This seems to me to be an evolution of the old debate about how to ensure a strong focus on strategic competitive advantage from technology as well as on gain the scale and cost benefits available from technological operational excellence.  I certainly held CIO and CTO titled roles where that strategic market facing aspects was my core objective from the CEO, sometimes including operational IT delivery but increasingly over recent years excluding it.

CDO is another perspective on the debates of recent years that you might summarise as “what type of CIO are you then” (on which I have mused on previously here) and whether the “T” in CTO is for technology or transformation.  Clearly what is really key is the value the role holder regardless of title brings to their company and how they can help it to maximise the value gained from technology in the digital age.

If a new title can help deliver on that promise as the traditional IT and Marketing landscape converge then fantastic. As long as you deliver I suspect you can probably pick any name you fancy; well to a degree as I suspect that the days of deciding to be called the Chief Wizard are probably gone.

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The Good Old Days?

An unexpected benefit of being forced to use the London underground system on a particularly hot day was overhearing a very telling conversation by the two chaps wedged in next to me.  “It is outrageous you know” declared one chap, “they are constantly complaining about how slow we are to update our key corporate apps and how difficult they are to use!”  “Yes I know” said the other “and do you know someone had the cheek to complain about our systems being down at 3am the other day as he had assumed 24×7 delivery?”.

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The conversation then went to on reveal that these two chaps were senior managers in the IT function of a very large financial services company.  Their shared outrage was directed primarily at their internal users expecting their corporate IT to reflect the user experience and flexibility of social media but also included dismay at how rapidly they now were expected to implement enhancements and iterate the application versions.   As they exited the train the final comment I heard was a lament for the passing of the “good old days where you updated an app once a year at most and the users knew better than to complain”.

There has been a deal of material produced by analysts and the IT press on the consumerisation of corporate IT over recent years but this overheard conversation was telling evidence that this trend has indeed continued to become all pervasive.  It is undoubtedly true the users of technology within companies now expect it to operate to the same rules and pace of the social media enable Web 2.0 world (at least!). 

These expectations of easy constant accessibility, of access from multiple device types, of apps designed for a good user experience and of rapid development cycles are setting the tone for IT strategy across the business landscape to one degree or another; sometimes in hope more than expectation of delivery but part of the mind-set nonetheless.  In my view this makes the IT leadership challenge more exciting, more demanding and far more connected to the “real world”.  This was clearly not the view of the two chaps who prompted this musing! 

The challenge perhaps more than ever before is in separating need from want, in discerning business value from me too demands and in aspiring to the same design ethics for user experience as the consumer orientated cloud computing empowered arena.  Tougher role than the past, well perhaps so,  but regardless certainly a far cry from the days of my early career where the IT function often had to force fed technology to its user base rather than have it assertively and avidly demanded from them by eager technology believers.    

The more I think about that last comment the more it highlights how things have changed in corporate IT arena and indeed how much it dates me!

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Positive Deviant?

A few weekends ago I was skimming through some articles around the concept of “Shadow IT”, ie the IT solutions deployed within an organisation without the sanction of the CIO.  A quote jumped out at me in one article discussing why employees might chose to use public cloud services in a corporate context, Professor Nelson Philips of Imperial College Business School said it was an example of “positive deviance” as people were genuinely just seeking to overcome obstacles preventing their success.  I really liked that term as in my experience there has always been a positive intent behind the deployments of “credit card funded IT “, usually from frustration at being unable to progress through official channels.

Ladder to Cloud

Now as a career CIO I am not about to fall into the gamekeeper turned poacher trap and argue that this is always fine and appropriate.  I have enough scars from well intended but not entirely understood leaps into the solution that appeared so “quick, easy and risk free” to forget that there are often sound reasons for the IT function’s apparent unwillingness to act.  However, I do accept that there are times when the oh so enticing cloud service can be a highly effect rapid means to solving a business requirement.  The critical questions around data security, process integrity and integration requirements have to be asked but they should not always be used as a great reason to say “no”.   One tactic that I have found effective is to enable people to intelligently self-assess the viability of a given cloud based solution.  We created a simple “viability qualification” questionnaire tool through which we articulated the key questions that make clear the integration and risk implications of a given cloud service; all offered under the guise of self empowerment.  We built up the use of the tool by responding quickly to requests which were based on it.  Over a relatively short period of time we found people self-filtering material volumes of tempting solutions they might have otherwise have championed.  I will not claim it solved all the challenges but it certainly removed a deal of the potential conflict points.

It seems to me that being operationally excellent just gives the CIO a seat at the decision table. To use that seat to manage the IT lurking in the shadows the CIO must prove that they can, and are seen to be able to,  enable the business to succeed at the pace set by the competition.  I believe that they need to enable their colleagues to be positive deviant in a context where the company is assured that it understands the risk to true cost to value gained equation.

Good things come in threes!

A few nights ago I had an unique experience in a London bar, well for me at least!  A group of 2 CIO/technologists, 3 HR Directors and 3 Marketing Directors all declared the same topic as an entry in their respective top 3 challenges.   The terminology used to name the challenge differed at times, but we were all actually talking about social computing.  By this term I mean the demand for employees (often led by the most senior in the company!) to access social media sites from the corporate network and  to connect personal technology devices in the workplace.  Alongside these demands all felt pressured to ensure their company had a clear strategy for social media arena.   The resulting debate was wider ranging and grew more animated as the number of trips to the bar increased!   The senior executive “what is this stuff and should we be doing it then?” refrain generated much debate.  I was in listening mode during this segment but did point people at a recent excellent article published in the McKinsey Quarterly, “Demystifying Social Media” which I offered as valuable educational material.

The longest area of debate centred on the HR sphere, i.e. what should be encouraged or allowed and so what should the corporate policy and associated guidance material therefore state?  The technologists were keen to balance the opportunity with the need to protect corporate assets, brand and information.  The marketers were focused on gaining corporate brand benefits and cost effective social media enriched campaigns whilst managing brand impact.  However, the HR professionals were the only ones that seemed to be feeling that social computing was presenting them with far more pain than gain and  they felt forced into the position of always saying “no”.  This was fascinating as immediately the technologists and marketers all loudly declared that this was exactly how they felt as the guardians of the company from their different vantage points!  What followed was a rapid building of common understanding which at times certainly strayed into group therapy territory!

I outlined how in a previous CIO role it had taken a trio of senior managers across IT, Marketing and HR to define and enact a clear strategy and related set of policies for the social computing arena.   We had also shamelessly learnt from others, good examples being the IBM Social Computing Guidelines and the HP Blogging Code Of Conduct.  I would also flag here a fantastic resource I recently found in this area collating policy/guidance material from leading corporate across the global, the Online Database Of Social Governance.   There were also key lessons learned along the way which we then embedded in our policy, e.g. the importance of employees being clear that use of their corporate email on a social website associates them with the company brand and they cease to act as private citizens; seems very obvious now but it wasn’t at the time, least not to us.

The key lesson I’d took from that initiative way back in 2011 (seems like a lifetime ago!) was it required the IT, Marketing and HR functions to be both aligned and actively engaged to support each other.   It required a collective response to ensure that the company maximised the value and mitigated the risks.  The art of the possible joined with a focus on understanding the imperative to act but ensuring a precise and evolving articulation of the policy and guidance to guide our people.  The debate and the consensus reached that night simply confirmed those lessons still hold true.

This blog post was also shared on The Business Value Exchange,

Skating on thin ice?

I recently met the CIO of a large technology company on the banks of Stickle Tarn below Pavey Ark in the Lake District.  We both had dogs that we were restraining from leaping onto the frozen tarn and worrying about a third dog that was right out in the middle of the ice.  We turned to each other to comment on the idiocy of allowing the dog onto the creaking ice and realised that we had meet in 2012 at a conference.  We decided to do the walk back down to the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel together and chat over a pint or two.  During our descent I (rather boringly!) asked what was his number one concern right now in a work context. The reply was not what I was expecting although you would always assume it is in the top 10 worry list items for any CIO, it was data loss.   They had noticed an increasing level of attack on their network and web facing servers over recent months and were working on the premise that it is primarily aimed at intellectual property theft rather than the data and systems they host for clients.  After an interesting discussion of the security issues and approach being taken on which I must remain silent we moved on to other topics.

Over the last few pints before we parted company we talked about the shadow IT and budget raider issues I blogged about in my last post.  I was not surprised that he confirmed the issues were real to him and ones he was experiencing within his company.  He was more bullish about handling the challenges that some other CIOs with whom I’ve discussed the topic but agreed they were current and requiring time and attention to address.

Later that week I read a report published by KPMG on data loss which I was planning to talk about in this post.  However, earlier today I read a great blog post on the same topic/report by Sarah Green on the Harvard Business Review site so will instead leave you to read it here.

As a result I have room to talk about a related bee in my bonnet instead!  The point in the report on technology companies being one of the primary targets for hackers was telling as I am convinced that Apple have been hacked. 

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I think the system relating to Apple iTunes gift cards has been compromised.  I was recently given a £15 gift card which when I tried to redeem it was declared by iTunes to have “already redeemed”.  Now this was a brand new untouched card from which I had personally scratched off the code cover myself so I knew that this could not be true, unless the card was a duplicate or the underlying system compromised.  Expecting that a) Apple would be helpful and refund my money and that b) this would prove to be an isolated issues caused by a system glitch I contacted Apple and searched the support forums. 

What I found was a number of people posting with similar stories of woe across different countries and that the unhelpful implicit “well you must be mistaken as that code is reporting as already redeemed” position taken by Apple support was consistent.  My card was apparently redeemed in June 2012 so clearly my trying to redeem the same code in January 2013 meant I was the one at fault.  There is even a video of a chap posted to the Apple support forum using a clearly virgin card and obtaining the “already redeedmed” message; last I read he had made no progress in having Apple accept that there was a problem and he was not trying to re-use an old card.  To my shame I gave up arguing with Apple as for £15 it was simply not worth the hassle (and as it was a gift I lacked a receipt to prove date of purchase), however I certainly will not be buying any iTunes gift cards in the future and I remain convinced that their system has been compromised in some way.  If you are interested here is one of the support forums where people are reporting the issue.

It would seem that denying and ignoring the issue appears to have been a successful strategy for Apple to date.  I suspect that they will probably ride out the “noise” without any real publicity or PR damage.  However, I do think that they are skating on thin ice with this approach and eventually this type of customer angst does rebound and cause damage.  Denial of security breaches is tempting but ultimately transparency, acknowledgement of the issue and a declared plan to correct is probably the better strategy.