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Homework for the successful IT Leader—finding and putting disruptive technology to work


Joel Dobbs.GIFGuest post by Joel H. Dobbs 

Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC(CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business. Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Executive CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.


“Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity”--Henry Hartman



Homework.PNGIn my last post titled 4 competencies every CIO must master, I  wrote about the importance of maintaining one’s technical proficiency. For today’s CIOs and IT leaders maintaining technical proficiency increasingly means understanding the wealth of emerging new technologies and the application of these and how they fit, either now or in the future, into your organization. Too often we are tempted to give the same old worn-out excuses for why the latest innovations won’t work in our organization instead of doing the necessary homework to learn the facts.  As leaders you must set the tone with your organization.


When the iPad first hit the market, I bought one (so did my CEO!).  Shortly after having some time to check them out, we had a lengthy conversation about possible uses, especially in sales and in our medical conference booths. . When I asked my staff to check it out I got the usual. “It’s a consumer device.”  “It isn’t robust” (whatever that means). “It isn’t secure” (the standard objection when you don’t know what else to say).  “How do you know?” I asked, given that I was the only person in the room who actually owned and used one.   I instructed them to go to the Apple Store, buy a couple and check them out (more about this exercise later).


New technologies, especially disruptive ones, have caused rigid, process-oriented organizations, which describe many IT organizations, problems for years. Disruptive innovations are usually not respecters of convention. That is why they are disruptive. 


The single most important technical skill CIOs must have


In my work with start-up companies we place a great deal of effort on due diligence, both on the start-up side and on the funding side. Is there a market?  If so, how big is it? Who are your competitors?  Can your intellectually property be protected? How much funding will you really need? Can the product be manufactured at scale at a reasonable cost? You get the message. Before someone starts a company or before an investor puts money into that company there is a lot of up front homework that must be done. It is the same with advances in technology. 


If you don't do your homework, someone else will


CIOs and IT leaders simply must do their due diligence. If you don’t do your homework someone else will and you will come out looking foolish, or worse. The ability to objectively and critically evaluate emerging technologies may be the single most important technical skill CIOs need in the years ahead.


So, how does one go about developing or improving these skills both personally and within your organization?  Let me suggest two broad areas of focus along with some specific actions.


First, learn to spot potential opportunities. One important point here, I am not suggesting that every new product or technology is worth expending resources to evaluate.  The key is to be able to sort out potential winners by evaluating them against criteria that are meaningful for your organization.  Knowledge of your business, your company’s strategy, the competitive forces impacting you and your customer’s “pain points” are critical for doing this evaluation well.  Remember, this is about the USE of technology, not about the technology itself.  The technology can be very cool, but totally useless.


How to spot potential technology winners


1. Read with an open mind.  Read a variety of professional and non-professional publications.  Stay abreast of what is happening in the larger world, especially the trends impacting your industry, market and customers. Take time to think creatively about possibilities.  It was the light weight, small size, long battery life and multimedia capabilities of the iPad that sparked our interest in using it as a sales and educational tool.  The fact that it was made by Apple (we don’t have any Macs) and didn’t support Flash was irrelevant to us.  We could work around that.


2. Observe and ask questions. How do people in your company actually get work done? What are their pain points?  When was the last time you took a road trip with one of your  sales reps?  During my years as a CIO I used to make what I called “screen rounds,” the terminology originating from my medical training where medical teams made daily “rounds” to see hospital patients.  I would simply make time to walk around speaking to people and looking to see what was on their screens.  How did they actually use their computer to get their work done?  What applications did they most frequently use?  What problems were they having? You can learn a lot from simply walking around, observing and asking questions. 


3. Consider forming an internal advisory board.  Why not have an internal advisory board comprised of key people from within your company?  I have done this and find that, if you approach it with an open mind and listen to and act on what you learn, these can be extremely valuable.  The input will help you better understand the real challenges and opportunities and the participation by business colleagues is a great way to build better working relationships.


4. Think like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs find a problem or opportunity that excites them, pursue it with passion and take risks to be successful.  We need more entrepreneurs in IT leadership.


Second, be proactive with what you learn. As we said earlier, the objective is not to implement every new technology that crosses your path, or to even evaluate them all.  The objective is to thoughtfully pick potential winners and then invest time and energy in them.  Not all will be successful. Realize this up front. 


Acting on possible technology winners


Here are a few ideas to consider:


1. Partner with key business colleagues who stand to benefit.  In the iPad example, we partnered with a very motivated team from the sales organization.  Your objective should not be the implementation or rejection of a particular technology but on making your colleagues successful.  If you focus on that, you will make the right decisions.


2. See if you can set aside some funds for an innovation fund.  Run it with a “board” of IT and business people, perhaps the advisory board I spoke of earlier.  The key here is to provide some “seed” money to fund initial research on promising innovations.  In the iPad example I provided the initial funds to purchase the devices for evaluation.


3. Set clear objectives for evaluations based on what you need to accomplish.  In the iPad evaluation we wanted our sales reps to be able to use these in the field and at conferences.  I gave the evaluation team four questions to answer: 1) Can we connect securely to our network from remote locations via VPN? 2) Can we secure the content on the device? 3) Can it handle e-mail and calendaring? 4) Can we push content to the device remotely and also delete content remotely?  These were basic things we needed to know.  Not being able to do one or more wouldn’t necessarily disqualify the device but it would give us facts to work with and clarify our options.


4. Finally, accept or reject based on empirical data, not opinions. Be objective.


We are entering an exciting and potentially disruptive time for IT organizations.  The future will belong to the prepared.  Be prepared. Do your homework!

About the Author


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Joel,  this post struck a chord with me.  After reading it, I sat down and sent a thank you card to my first corporate mentor who taght me a simple rule:  "Do you staff work."  I thanked my good friend for his wise lesson that has served me well in my career.  When you do your homework or staff work, you  not only make better decisions but you also gain the respect of your peers. 

Thanks for sharing your expertise in this forum.



Hi Joel...thanks for this very good blog! I personally related to the "read with an open mind" and "think like an entrepreneur"...very often I have seen this standing in the way to do things different. Innovation - I was told once - is the combination of existing things to make something the two things ("read with an open mind" and "think like an entrepreneur") are then exactly what you need.


I like to add one thing: detachment!


Many people are too attached to how things are and what they do, the norms and values they have, the concepts they believe in, the opinions they have (like that part where you write about all the objection thrown in the air when you suggested to check out the iPAD) illusions that distract them ofcourse is relates to what you said (about the reading and the thinking) but it goes one step further: forming…in other words not only think different but also feel and do different. And that requires personal change!


Thanks Judy and Joshua for your comments.


Judy, I’m glad to hear that you are a card writer.  For years I have kept a box of cards with my name embossed on them in my desk for the purpose of writing simple thank you’s to folks who have helped me or done a job well.  Never underestimate the power of a hand written thank you note.


Joshua, you are exactly right.  People become comfortable and thus “attached” to certain routines.  One of the first steps in initiating any change is to create a clear and understandable case for the change.  This is frequently referred to as a “burning platform.” Too often this vital step is missed.





Joel, in your mind, is discovering new technologies the role of the CIO or the role of the CTO? I have seen it going both ways in accounts. I've also seen companies where the siloed structure of the IT department hindered the embracing of new technologies as these often cross organizational boundaries, so isn't there, also a need to establish a spirit of enterpreneurship and collaboration in the whole department? Any thoughts?


I actually believe that discovering new technologies is everyone's job.  In this day and age I would expect everyone to keep an open mind about potentially valuable technologies.  Obviously, organizations need a process to properly evaluate those that are deemed worth further evaluation and it is here that I believe the CIO and/or CTO should always have an active role. Most CIO & CTO position descriptions will contain a statement about identifying and recommending new technologies but they shouldn't do it alone.




I am happy to say there are several leaders doing a great job with addressing the needs of students in poverty in a more sustainable way. Many leaders understand what comes with media attention and choose to have quiet successes on their journey to school improvement. If you want to get the truth of what is happening in a district, I recommend people ask leaders the right questions, review the school data (academics, college remediation and persistence data, etc.), visit when the cameras or newspapers are not around, and ask the students and staff what is really going on for they are the keepers of the truth. There are predatory leaders who are nice to the right people so they can market for them and horrible to most. Unless you have actually worked with any of the leaders the media highlights, I would not get too excited about the reports.


Linda from Your Homework Help

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