Hey IT, what’s the big idea?

The IT function of the future features bold and unafraid thinking paired with flawless execution. It has discipline in the cultivation of ideas. It marries disruptions in technology, science, and data to bring forth innovative solutions. It delivers on these ideas with predictability and confidence across a wide set of suppliers. And it signals a shift in IT to a new role with a familiar past—enterprise visionary and steward of technology enablement.
(Financial Times ‘The Connected Business’ guest column)

Show transcript

TUESDAY MAY 28 2013

The Connected Business

Hey IT, what’s the big idea?
By Mike Cooke, Dan Priest, and Aveek Guha
“What’s the big idea?” There’s a question most IT leaders would love to answer… or even help to answer. That’s because a Big Idea can be not only career fulfilling, but also career advancing. But what exactly is a Big Idea? It is a solution that connects the dots among the business’s vision and the firm’s technologies and processes. Most importantly, it is focused on creating a vast amount of growth in a differentiated way. It’s not just delivering a good answer to a business requirement, an approach that largely meets stated needs and does not create enough excitement to be game changing or steal market share. For example, meeting a business requirement at an airline might mean creating a good inseat entertainment system. A Big Idea, on the other hand, would create an in-flight social experience that allows passengers to stay connected, helps airlines listen, and enables service agents to communicate with and respond to passengers in-flight. In the aforementioned example, there is a clear benefit for the customer. If the passenger is delayed and will a miss a connection, a service center agent can find the best alternative connection before the plane lands. And if it’s going to be close, the agent can send the passenger a message through the entertainment system with the fastest route to the new gate. If one further studies the value potential of the provided example, it is evident that the benefits the company receives are actually much more impressive. The Big Idea would generate information to allow the company to zoom in on its most profitable customers and services. That information might also allow that airline to target potential future big spenders and “groom” them into long-term, recurring clients before they are captured by a competitor. This ability to materially increase enterprise value is the main aspect of the Big Idea. Where should these Big Ideas originate? To us, it makes perfect sense for IT to be one of a company’s primary sources.” In prior articles (insert links here), we discussed how the future CIO construct would bifurcate into two distinct roles - the chief strategic information officer (CSIO), responsible for driving insights from the extended information ecosystem, and the chief technology officer (CTO), responsible for managing the information technology The Big Idea is the essence of the CSIO role - to harness the potential of data, science, social interactions, and technology to achieve one-of-a-kind solutions. Business will increasingly use information and technology to drive costs out of the operating model, drive intelligence into decision making, and drive customers toward digital channels. Concepts like “Big Data”, social networking, and mobile technologies are converging toward powerful new business capabilities that are creating significant change and opportunity. These platforms create disruptive opportunities, but only for those capable of exploiting them. Hence, the value of the CSIO. An idea without execution, however, is sterile. Growing the business through better thinking relies as much on the “how” as it does on the “what.” The CTO is also critical in the Big Idea paradigm because he or she will orchestrate the infrastructure of these nextgeneration capabilities. For IT leadership, a conversation about Big Ideas should be a welcome change from regular discussions of legacy system problems, data challenges, and dreaded cost reductions. Today, IT leaders are peppered with one-off requests for projects both big and small. Their teams have the tough job of balancing what stakeholders want with what they actually need, and giving them something satisfactory. In the end, most companies windup with a portfolio of point solutions, rather than platforms for growth- meaning they spend more and get less. Moreover, the complexity of a point solution portfolio just makes things worse. The pace of IT investments may be accelerated, but the company may still find itself falling behind its competition; solutions to simple requests cost a lot and take too long. The stark reality is that in a world where companies are learning to develop Big Ideas and harness the data associated with them for competitive advantage, IT cannot afford to be reactive, nor can companies afford to pursue a reactive approach any longer. One of the first activities a CSIO should undertake is to create a “Big Idea Agenda.” A good idea rarely comes in the form of an epiphany from a person sitting alone in an office somewhere. As Steven Johnson proclaimed in ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation’ (Riverhead Books, 2010), it happens as a “slow hunch” that develops through a lot of different types of interactions. Ideas need to be managed so they can grow big. The teams responsible for developing new products or services need an immersion strategy to get connected with customers, users, competitors, and thought leaders. They can’t wait for perfectly formed business requirements—that’s too passive. They need to go and see for themselves how the business process works and how customers interact with their products and services. CSIOs should promote an approach to doing this and manage it as a discipline. Good ideas will emerge, and both IT and business leaders should be ready to take them to the next level. The IT function of the future features bold and unafraid thinking paired with flawless execution.It has discipline in the cultivation of ideas. It marries disruptions in technology,science, and data to bring forth innovative solutions. It delivers on these ideas with predictability and confidence across a wide set of suppliers. And it signals a shift in IT to a new role with a familiar past— enterprise visionary and steward of technology enablement.

Mike Cooke is a partner in Booz & Company’s strategy and IT practices, Aveek Guha is a principal, and Dan Priest is a senior executive advisor

© THE FINANCIAL TIMES LIMITED 2013