How IT executives become leaders of business strategy

We have all heard stories of IT executives who have become strategic business enablers, leading their teams to deploy and manage technology such that organizations are better able to pursue their business strategy. While inspiring, these stories often lack the details of how the IT leaders were able to get a seat at the table. How were they able to proactively contribute to the business strategy instead of being brought in after the fact? Technology professionals understand that IT should be at the core of strategic planning, but that is not always the case.

Business Strategy is for IT, Too

The scenario varies from industry to industry. In some, IT leaders play a valuable role from the get-go, yet in others, these leaders are not included in business strategy planning; they’re only consulted in the context of how IT will support the strategic plan once it’s developed. For whatever reason, the culture in those organizations has not evolved in that way, just as some industries adopt technology more slowly than others. So, for those technology leaders, how do they ensure that the IT team becomes an intrinsic part of the business planning process?

This was the topic of a recent roundtable discussion among IT executives in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry. The discussion was organized by Andy Knauf, CIO of Mead & Hunt, a well-known U.S. engineering firm. He began his career in the IT department 28 years ago as the first IT technician at Mead & Hunt. He has worked his way to the top, not only as the CIO of his organization, but also as a technology visionary for his industry who is helping other IT executives achieve more success by imparting his knowledge. Below is his journey to the position of CIO and how he was able to become comfortable in that chair as a respected leader.

Focusing on Business Outcomes

It can sometimes feel overwhelming to keep up with the rapid and complex changes in information technology. Yet, there is the right combination of risk-taking and proving value that comes with the CIO territory; the tricky part is in getting the balance right. Gartner Research reports in its 2018 Gartner CIO Agenda Survey that top CIOs already focus more on performance metrics around business outcomes than metrics for IT delivery. Sure enough, along Andy’s journey through the IT ranks, every step of the way he was able to prove that the technology decisions being made were having a positive impact on the firm’s growth objectives.

Twenty-eight years after Andy joined the company with its single office, they have more than 30 offices across the country with more than 650 employees performing massive construction projects. He was thrown impossible growth challenges and never backed down. He found creative ways to support acquisitions of new companies with their remote employees. Over the years, Andy and the team made bold decisions about IT infrastructure: They replaced phone switches with Skype VoIP services, wall to wall. He retired Exchange servers and deployed Office 365 for apps and email, including using One Drive for files. He also introduced file lock-n-sync across design offices for engineers, so they could collaborate on designs while never overwriting each other’s work. And recently, he has deployed a new cloud-based VDI solution and now delivers Windows 10 NVIDIA GPU-accelerated workstations in Azure to designers anywhere in the world.

The business agility he’s brought to his company is amazing. Recently he was asked to open a new branch office to accommodate five new, remote engineers in support of a new design project. With the new IT model in place, the firm leased the office space, and the IT team simply shipped a cable modem and $500 laptops to the new office. The engineers were able to open their new laptops, run the VDI client and instantly connect to their massively powerful Windows 10 workstations in Azure! They’re only 25ms away from Azure, and they’re getting multi-gigabit network speeds in Azure between their design apps (like AutoCAD and Revit) and their data files, so performance is as good as their physical workstations. Some customers have reported better performance than physical workstations! For Mead & Hunt, from “winning the project” to “five engineers collaborating on designs” took just three weeks. All setup and configuration was performed remotely; no IT travel was required. With this kind of agility, setting up a branch office is simple, less costly, and power users get amazing performance. More often, a branch office is not needed; now that the firm uses cloud workstations, CAD engineers and BIM professionals can be hired anywhere in the world and they can work from anywhere: Home, office, or client site. That means AEC firms can pursue opportunities anywhere and serve their clients with new levels of creativity and responsiveness.

A Focus on What’s Next

Most CIOs today are prioritizing cloud computing and big data analytics – the first real steps in digital transformation. These are the technologies they believe can have business impact today – while also preparing their organizations to take advantage of AI and ML later. But whatever your priorities and whichever technology is required to advance your organization’s business goals, be in front of it.

Many CIOs have had to write their own ticket to the top; they’ve redefined their own role to be customer- and business-centric, and it’s taken them straight to the top of their game. They’ve had to take calculated risks to introduce new technologies that remove complexity and reduce costs. Don’t be afraid to move beyond the decisions of the past. As a true thought leader, you will question, envision, empower, simplify, work smarter and do more with less. You’ll spot emerging trends early, find the next-gen technologies you need and inspire your team to reach for bigger and better results.

Ultimately, your focus on business goals will enable your IT team to become strategic advisors to the business. An innovation mindset, a willingness to take risks and a strategic bent will give you the seat at the table you deserve – and that will propel your organization ahead of the competition.