Chris Weston - Making IT Work

Last week I spent a day talking about innovation with a bunch of people from various parts of my organisation.  It was a fascinating day, not least because I got to hear what other people think innovation is, and where it comes from.

There’s no ‘right’ answer to this and there are many ways to get to an innovative solution to problems.  However my favourite explanation, and the one I see happening most often, is the ‘edge effect’.  This is based on an ecological principle, and describes what happens when two ecologies meet.  A great deal of diversification and evolution happens in these places in order to cope with the conjunction of the different worlds.

IT has it’s own edge effect, which I kind of blogged about last year, and this is the rise of ‘shadow IT’, which tends to happen when corporate IT can’t meet the dynamic demands of evolving organisations. This can often be where customers (one ecology) demand services from the organisation (another ecology) which then needs to react quickly to maintain a market position.  Monolithic central IT, with all the baggage of prior investment and governance, cannot react in the timescales needed by the new ecology.  It’s not only IT that suffers these issues, of course. Most business processes are challenged by these edge effects, and sometimes organisations choose to withdraw completely from the interaction rather than challenge their internal models.  This isn’t always a bad thing, but in extreme cases can lead to the organisation becoming irrelevant, and eventually extinct.

The video above is musician Yo-Yo Ma talking about the edge effect, and how it can be used to encourage collaboration and mutual success.  I take the view that if innovation can be described and predicted in such an elegant way, it must have a lot going for it.  Hope you enjoy it.

Linkedin lifeline


Today, the company I work for announced an acquisition, in a press release timed at 7:30am.   At 8:48am I had my first random LinkedIn request from an employee of that company.

Isn’t that great?  If people are going to be working together it is fantastic that they use the available tools to connect with their future colleagues (although I wish people would personalise their LinkedIn message!). Acquisitions and mergers are (almost) always characterised by difficulties, be they clashing cultures, denial of the new realities of life, or the classic lack of communication.  Now that people are able to create dynamic communities in response to these changes, it’s bound to lessen these age-old problems.  People can get to know each other before any change management programme tries to make it happen, and as I wrote in a previous post they will expand their network in reaction to what’s happening to them - it won’t be because of a memo from a line manager.

Social media, people!

Embracing the network


Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in the past few months have been about organisational change and the impact of social networks on traditional hierarchical management models.  A recent blog by Optimity captured a lot of this thinking - a key quote is

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, it is unrealistic to believe that a century-old management model will somehow endure while the rest of the world is reshaped by the technologies of the digital age.

My take on this view is that the digital generation expects to be able to be part of many communities at once, and be holding several simultaneous conversations with each of them.  Sometimes the conversations will inform each other, sometimes they won’t be relevant to each other at all.   Some interchanges will be slow burning, some will rush to a conclusion.  Communities will likewise be long-lasting and ephemeral in equal measure.  This is how ‘digital natives’ communicate, and it’s radically different to the 20th century model.

A 21st century organisation must embrace and exploit this, or it will fail.  A good example of a very traditional organisation adapting to meet a new challenge of this sort is the United States military - maybe the most clear example of a strict hierarchy you’d hope to find.  They took on the task of fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq after the invasion in 2003 and set about it in their usual way.  They began to map the enemy with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the head, and various lieutenants and soldiers beneath him.  It became clear pretty quickly that this was flawed - previous enemy forces had been organised in this way, but Iraq’s lieutenant’s weren’t waiting for memos from their superiors.

Al Qaeda in Iraq was using technology to transfer money, information and propaganda faster than the US Army could follow it, their enemy was not organised by rank, but by reputation, relationships and fame.  The enemy could grow and sustain losses with impressive ease - it was a well-functioning network.

General Stanley McChrystal coined a phrase ‘it takes a network to fight a network’ - and set about changing the structure of the US forces to be able to react to the way Al Qaeda was operating.  Information was shared far more widely than before, barriers of rank were broken down and individual units given more responsibility to respond to this information.  This was so successful that the tactics were quickly adopted in Afghanistan where the same problems haunted the allied forces.

In business organisations there are similar challenges, where traditional layered hierarchies stifle communication and collaboration.  I will quote Jon Husband from the Wirearchy blog -

today it’s very likely that in your organization people are interconnected and are using their exchanges with each other and their participation in information flows to get work done and achieve objectives. The organization’s people are already operating using knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on achieving results ..

The question is posed, how well has the organisation adapted its leadership, management practices and organizational culture to be flexible and adept enough to take advantage of these real possibilities for improvement and/or innovation?

Can we learn from people like McChrystal, and adapt our organisation to the changing world, or are we so sure of the 20th century business model that we will cling to it, come what may?  I know where I’m putting my money!

Remembering to ask

When looking at a business problem for the first time, it’s easy to start in an unstructured way - the opening lines from Rudyard Kiplings ‘The Elephant’s Child’ are a nice way to remind yourself to step back and consider…

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

So, how does IT, and the Digital agenda, help you grow your business?


Some people invest in IT, some get value, some feel they don’t.  Some just don’t invest.  So how, in a nutshell, can you give yourself the best chance of making the investment count, and how does it link to your overall success?

A simple, classic growth strategy piece of work might go something like this

  • What business are we in, what is our core offer, which generates our most important work re margin/revenue?
  • Who are our customers (potential and current), what business are they in, what value do we generate for them, what are their alternatives to us
  • Who are our customers’ customers? What do they want from our customer? How can we help our customer help them?
  • What, if anything, do we need to be better than our competitors at to maintain and grow our market share given the answers to the above?
  • What, if anything, do we need to be cheaper than our competitors at to maintain and grow our market share given the answers to the above
  • How do we achieve these two objectives?


  • How do we communicate our effectiveness to our customers so they will choose to buy our product or service?

IT strategy now kicks in, answering such questions as…

  • What technologies can be exploit to make the first ‘How’ happen? (More often than not increasing efficiencies around process is at the heart of both service improvement and cost reduction)
  • Can ERP (for example) be implemented/improved? 
  • Can data gathering be done more accurately /efficiently?
  • Can information be disseminated more effectively, ensuring the right resources are employed at the right time, more often?
  • Can we use our information to purchase more effectively? Reduce our debtor days? 
  • Can we provide any value from our information to our customer?

How does the ‘Digital’ agenda fit?

Digital, in my opinion, describes a bunch of technologies once owned by IT because of their complexity/cost, now appearing as commodities to be exploited by non-technical people and organisations. This is a Good Thing and the natural direction of travel. For example, once upon a time, the web site was dealt with by the IT department, but now it’s a natural part of the marketing effort. The commoditisation and proliferation of IT means that more information is available, more channels exist to be exploited, and if we look, we can find out more about our customer (or our customer’s customer). We can work with them in a more effective way, converting our sluggish 20th century processes to shiny new 21st century technology. It’s a big part of both the first AND second ‘How’ questions - whereas not so long ago the second ‘How’ was entirely a Sales and Marketing piece of work. IT and Marketing now need to work together hand-in-hand to exploit these opportunities.

Thinking about these questions, analysing the answers and coming up with a long-term plan isn’t something to be done over the weekend. Each answer asks several more questions, and every organisation will have unique strengths and weaknesses that direct the discussion. It takes commitment and effort, and honesty. But it’s eminently possible, and will highlight the areas that will actively contribute to your business plan, providing genuine return on investment and competitive advantage.  It’s vital if you want IT to be a enabler for growth, rather than the frustrating stop-start, costly effort that is playing catch up every time the rest of the organisation remembers to tell them what they’re doing!

Let’s get Digital - the rise of the CDO?

There is lots of talk in the blogs and conferences at the moment about ‘Chief Digital Officers’ and what this means for traditional IT.  In fact the one certain way you can know it’s a real issue is that top CIOs are denying the need for a CDO. There is a lot of sense in this view in my opinion, of course the answer is not to make someone responsible for the world as it is today whilst everyone else continues to think about yesterday.

But, life isn’t as simple as that.  It’s just not sensible to expect people who grew up in an unconnected world to understand and embrace an environment in which things change, and communication happens, at a giddying pace.  Teenagers don’t spend their evenings talking to their friends on the phone any more, they text each other, or use social media.   Why?  Because that way, they can have several conversations at a time.  The ‘Generation Game’ is well under way.

The CDO will be a part of life until the digital native generation makes it into the management layer in a bigger way.  Most organisations know they have to adapt - and they know they can’t do it wholesale.  It’ll be interesting to see where the CDOs come from, and what their expertise is.  I’m betting most of them won’t be from the CIO club.

A dying breed of CEO…?

Social media wizards Stamp London have conducted a survey into the digital habits of FTSE 100 CEOs, and some of the results are a little surprising.  For example I would expected the number of CEOs with Twitter accounts to have exceeded 12.  Maybe not more than 25-30, but 12 is pretty feeble.  They record that only 24 have LinkedIn accounts, again I am surprised it’s that low.  

Perhaps the most interesting work is around those companies involved in tech and communications.  Can it really be that the CEOs of Vodafone and Twitter are connected via neither LinkedIn or Twitter?  The world is changing fast, are these guys able to learn as quickly?

Stamp’s report at!

A really neat video from RSA, exploring how we might change the way we work for the better.  

Let’s face it


I had the chance to speak to a few CIOs, IT Directors etc about social media recently.  One of the subjects we touched upon was how we use social tools to improve collaboration within an organisation.  Many companies are using Yammer, Huddle, Sharepoint etc in an effort to collaborate and share information more effectively.  Something that one or two had noticed was that a picture makes a big difference.  It makes sense, a picture humanises the online presence.  You’re no longer a job title, you’re a person.  

Collaboration using social tools is about communities.  They may be short-term communities built around a particular goal, or more persistent ones that have a core skill or geography in common.  Communities are people - so make sure you put a picture on your profile!

Recently I’ve become involved with improving e-safety at my kids’ school.  It always seemed to me that it’s hard to find out how to improve the quality of filtering systems for personal devices so that they are safer for kids.  Of course supervision and education are paramount, but it’s good to sanitise the kit your kids use too.  

So, I created the blog linked here so that I can record all the ways I find to improve my kids’ experience of the internet - hopefully it’ll be useful for others too.  I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone else with good ideas around this subject.

If this, then that…

A first post from me for a while… I’ve been on holiday a couple of times and in between been extremely busy, busy enough to keep me from blogging or doing much of anything other than work!

One of the things I always intended to post about is called IFTTT, which stands for If This Then That.  It’s an internet service which uses ‘channels’ to trigger actions.  For example, I set up a ‘recipe’ (which is what the IFTTT guys call a combination of channels and triggers) to automatically post things I share on LinkedIn to my Yammer account.

IFTTT Recipe: Share any link from LinkedIn on Yammer

Pretty neat, if you like automating things (I do).

To me this site is a splendid example of what the Internet is for - to quickly get information to people that need it, and for people to be able to share their ideas (the wisdom of the crowd, if you like) as easily as possible.  It’s worth reading their description of the service as it’s better than mine and has a better url,

Losing Control

A couple of weeks ago I went to the presentation of this year’s Harvey Nash CIO survey.  It’s actually taken me that long to be able to sensibly get my thoughts down onto the blog.  Partly because of time constraints, but partly because I didn’t want to write a critical piece without properly thinking it through, making sure I wasn’t just indulging some negativity.

Much of the survey was the same old stuff, are you using mobile, blah, cloud, blah, BYOD, blah blah blah.  Then there was a question around advantages and disadvantages of disruptive technologies.  Shadow IT, by which we mean IT that has been deployed without the knowledge or blessing of the IT department, was viewed by 8% of CIOs of being High Advantage, and 53% as High Disadvantage.

You can see why this would be.  CIOs take the view that this type of IT carries great risk, because it hasn’t been properly vetted, that data can be stored overseas if it is cloud tech, that security could be compromised and that they might suddenly be asked to stretch their meagre budgets to support this stuff that they hadn’t been aware of.  However I think this is a pretty blinkered view.  Why?  Let’s look at a later stat from this survey.

This question asked which percentage of CIOs who saw ‘great innovation potential’ that had not been achieved. 69% thought that not enough time and resources had been invested in innovation.  Over two thirds of CIOs think that innovation isn’t happening?  Of course, what this means is, two thirds of CIOs don’t think they have the budget to fund ‘innovation’.  The glaringly obvious fact is that of course innovation is happening, but it’s happening where innovation always happens, at the edge of the organisation where need is greatest.  It’s happening with ‘Shadow IT’.  The very thing that CIOs fear most is the source of the innovation they don’t see

The traditional CIO is in a very dangerous place right now.  IT is no longer something that can be controlled, locked down and spoon-fed to grateful ‘users’.  To resist this and bemoan ‘Shadow IT’ as a disadvantage is to consign oneself to the dustbin.  There were a couple of long-in-the-tooth CIOs on the panel at this event that chuckled at the idea of ‘Big Data’.  ”We’ve seen it all before” they say.  How wrong, and complacent can you be.  There has never been a time of change and growth of data like there is today.   IT has never been available in such a consumerised, and commoditised form.  And this pace isn’t slowing, it’s accelerating.  

There is a quote elsewhere on this blog from a US Army chief that says ‘If you don’t like change, you’re really not going to like irrelevance’.  CIOs take note - control is a thing of the past.