The art of connecting: Creativity and the CIO

We don’t often associate creativity with IT but that’s all changing fast. Responding to the challenges and opportunities of runaway connectivity will be as much an art as a science for the CIO.

Today’s boards know that. Research from BT, the Art of Connecting: creativity and the modern CIO, found that in 95 per cent of organisations there is demand for creativity/innovation from the CIO.

Industry leaders are also banging the drum for more creativity. Sir John O'Reilly, of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, recently argued that it is time for a wider acronym, STEAM - science, technology, engineering, arts and maths, saying "engineering and technology is an increasingly diverse and creative domain.”

Senior IT decision makers largely welcome this demand for more creativity and see it as a positive development that will help raise their profile. Because so many new ideas are driven by technology, the CIO is well placed to bring new thoughts and ideas to the table.

He or she should be initiating conversations with colleagues about how technology can help deliver amazing outcomes for the business.

It is an opportunity to move beyond routine responsibilities for network availability and software upgrades to become a creative force for change and innovation in the organisation.

No time, no money for creativity?

But just how is the average CIO to grasp the nettle and get creative? Only four per cent of CIOs have an arts/humanities degree. Technologies such as the cloud, social networking and BYOD arguably undermine the traditional IT powerbase.

There is rarely any money in the IT budget earmarked for ‘creativity’. And there is no time. BT’s research suggests that the daily reality of the job leaves little occasion to be creative: 74 per cent say their CIO currently spends more time maintaining existing IT systems than searching for new solutions.

The answer is that much of what is making waves for the CIO is also creating opportunities for innovation. The combination of rising expectations and technology trends may turn out to be a virtuous circle that unleashes creativity.

Take so-called shadow IT – where operating units buy their own IT systems and services without involving the IT department. It is big business. Up to one quarter of IT spending now takes place outside the IT department.

At first glance, this is a problem for the CIO who is losing influence and budget, while still being expected to keep the corporate infrastructure secure. But there is another way to look at it. Shadow IT frees up the CIO. It gives him or her the time and the reason to have a conversation with colleagues, to learn more about their priorities, to actively encourage innovation at the grass roots of the organisation.

Delivery models such as hybrid clouds can let local business units innovate within a robust framework that imposes corporate IT security standards. To do this successfully requires creativity, married with a rock solid understanding of the business.

Technology partners love innovation

Many CIOs are missing a trick with their technology partners. They rarely challenge IT vendors to think creatively, preferring to talk about project management, methodology and SLAs.

It is good to learn that nearly nine out of ten IT decision makers say their technology partners are creative, and eight out of ten say that working with such vendors encourages their own creativity.

So how come just three in ten get around to actually approaching vendors for creative solutions? CIOs who want to be more creative should look more to their IT partners for innovation and fresh thinking.

At BT, we build innovation into our relationships with customers. We can even teach them how to be more innovative, based on our own experiences. It’s a win for everyone.

Last but not least, CIOs need to look at their team. A more diverse set of academic backgrounds, business experience and outlook will help boost creative thinking.

Smart companies ‘hire for attitude and train for skills’; it is time to recruit from a wider pool of talent, and add broader commercial and high end creative skills training to IT leadership development programmes.

The writing is on the wall: today’s IT leaders must be more creative. Creativity is the chance for the CIO to move from his/her previously operational role to one with much greater profile in the business.

The danger is that the business needs to run at speed and if the traditional CIO cannot keep up, then the business will find another way to do what it wants.

So use shadow IT to your advantage, pick the brains of your partners and add creativity to the IT department’s job descriptions. As long as technology remains the cornerstone of business, the injection of a little creativity will go a long way.

Ashish Gupta is President of Portfolio & Service Design and BT Advise, and Chief Information Officer at BT Global Services.