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CIO Insights: One CIO’s priorities—an agile culture and a big windshield

A conversation with Jeff Smith, IBM

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Program Director, Analytics Platform Marketing, IBM

CIO Insights: One CIO’s priorities—an agile culture and a big windshield

As part of a series of conversations with IBM executives on topics relevant to CIOs, I was fortunate to be able to interview IBM’s own CIO, Jeff Smith. Be sure to listen to the podcast for all of Jeff’s insights, but here are some noteworthy points to highlight.

Focus on culture

When I asked Smith about his early priorities as the new IBM CIO, I’m not sure what I expected to be his response—perhaps something about cognitive business or the changing technology landscape. Instead, he focused on culture. He set out to build a culture of small teams empowered to solve problems, take actions and innovate in many key areas. The philosophy, as Smith described it, was “clarity over certainty, course correction over perfection, self-directed teams over command and control.” A second priority was creating a great environment for IBMers, so people across multiple functions would have the right tools to do their jobs efficiently. As an IBMer myself, I appreciate that focus.

Everyone loves a story

People love a good story because it takes all the priorities and strategies and theories and makes them real. I asked Smith to share a favorite story showing how data and analytics had a transformative impact on the business. In response, he described a trip to Brazil he made several months ago, where he focused on something that’s of interest to every CIO—making service desks or help desks more efficient.

The initial challenge was to provide better signals to help-desk personnel, so they could more quickly diagnose a problem and get to the root cause and a solution. A key to the ultimate solution was the use of analytics to ingest 7 million help-desk records, analyze them and display the results on new dashboards that made sense of the data for the help-desk agents. The time required for problem identification dropped by 70 percent, and the time for root cause identification was cut by 80 percent.

Smith attributes the success in part to the analytics technology and in part to the focused approach. A small but agile team took just four months to identify and analyze the problem, develop a new approach and implement it. And in that time it began delivering benefits in terms of faster problem resolution than was achieved previously for both IBMers and customers in the region.

Changing expectations

We chatted for a bit about changing expectations for the CIO role. Although he has been CIO at IBM for less than two years, Smith has had other CIO and COO roles in the past. He has seen noteworthy changes that reflect the evolution we’ve all experienced in business and technology.

Not that many years ago, some business processes had strong technological underpinnings, but many did not. As a result, the CIO’s office was heavily involved in some processes but largely uninvolved in others. That situation has changed; today, it would be hard to name any business process in which technology is not involved. Similarly, technology is critical not just to a few industries but to every industry. The new expectation is that the CIO should play a strategic role across multiple functions, whatever the industry.

Of course, many reasons for technology’s involvement in so many areas exist. One is the insight enabled by data and analytics. And another is the agility that technology enables. Getting valuable insight next week is nice, but it might be too late. As Smith points out, “Speed is the new currency.”

Windshields and rearview mirrors

Smith’s advice for other CIOs is, know what best looks like. He was quick to point out that what works best today doesn’t necessarily follow the same pattern as what worked best in the past. “The windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror” because we need to keep looking ahead. That statement seemed like good advice not just for his fellow CIOs, but also for the rest of us.

Listen to the next episode of this series to hear about putting data to work for the business with IBM's Derek Schoettle, and register for World of Watson, your new home for putting data to work.