Tuesday, May 12, 2015

CIO: More than Meets the “I”

By Terry Bradwell
Executive Vice President
and Chief Information Officer

It is no secret that tech is the key competitive advantage today.  Why then pigeonhole the CIO as simply the head of a commoditized function?

CEOs expect today’s CIOs to be innovative, inspirational, and influential. 

CIOs can fill that challenging role when they work with the CEO and executive team to help shape the organization’s external world and strengthen its bottom line.

At AARP, our bottom line is fighting for and equipping the nearly 38 million Americans 50-plus whom we represent people to live their best lives.  We help them achieve and sustain health security—financial resilience—and personal fulfillment.

As CIO of AARP, I ask myself:  How can I make the most meaningful contribution to that bottom line?

The answer, I am convinced, is not only to direct the operations of IT but also to transform the IT department into an engine of innovation for the people AARP serves.

The answer is not only to support the business, but also to invest in being the business.

I would submit that the importance of connecting IT to the core business in innovative ways applies not only to AARP, but to companies and other organizations as well.

IT departments are recognized for their ability to solve disruptive problems across the enterprise.  It’s time to look beyond that traditional model. 

If we only think of disruption as something to avoid—like disruption of service—we’re missing something.  Disruption is one of my core responsibilities to the enterprise.  It’s not something to be feared; it’s something to be thoughtfully engineered:
  • To enable the mission
  • To enable the workforce
  • To strengthen the bottom line

As CIO I have worked to turn our department from a cost center to a value center by driving an external tech agenda.

Recognizing that millions of older Americans are not online and are missing out on connections they would treasure to family, friends, and their community, we designed and carried out a digital literacy initiative called AARP TEK, which stands for Technology Education & Knowledge.

AARP TEK is a comprehensive national education program tailored to the needs of tech-shy older adults.  These men and women want plain language, free of incomprehensible jargon.  They want one-on-one instruction that is patient and not condescending.

With AARP TEK, they get hands-on workshops, a customized curriculum, and the delivery of user-friendly information.  They get an experience that is accommodating, not intimidating.

The technology training workshops we have held made it clear that a sizable segment of the American population was not being served by the technology industry.  To tackle that issue, we introduced a user-friendly tablet called RealPad, tailored to the needs and wants of older adults who have found personal technology anything but personal.

RealPad is AARP’s first-ever direct to consumer retail product.  It offers a warm and welcoming experience for the technology-shy.  It comes with preloaded apps, large graphics and icons, and it’s Wi-Fi enabled.  It steers clear of impenetrable technology and offers a halo of support through basic videos in clear language and 24-7 live customer service.

RealPad and AARP TEK are prime examples of what we can achieve when IT doesn’t just support the business but invests in being the business.  They demonstrate how we can, in the words of our CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, “disrupt aging.”

At the same time, we can only enable the mission if we enable the IT workforce.  At the heart of our transformation is building and sustaining an empowered and collaborative team.

That means:
  • Elevating collaboration as a cultural value
  • Empowering people to make decisions 
  • Encouraging thoughtful risk-taking
  • Removing bottlenecks like unneeded layers of approval 
  • Avoiding rule-heavy governance
  • Welcoming streamlined processes and new ideas 
  • Creating a flatter organization, where people’s first instinct is collaboration.
  • Using data to drive innovation
  • Making sure the entire IT team understands the new, broader role in support of the business.
For me and for my management team, it means modeling the kind of collaboration we want to see across-the-board. 

It also means not typecasting staff by their current roles.  As CIO, I’ve found it’s better to ask, “What can you do?” than “What do you do?”

In our new role for IT—focusing not only on keeping the lights on but also on shaping an external agenda—we have combined the hunger and excitement of a start-up with the well-honed execution of an experienced brand.  

By engineering disruption to enable the mission and enable the workforce, we have given strong support to our bottom line:  helping people 50-plus live their best lives.

Sometimes those of us in IT spend so much time on operational business needs that we become disconnected from the core business we are actually in.  In my view, a CIO is a businessperson first, not a technologist.  Our challenge is to drive innovation and leverage technology to support the business.  That is how we provide the greatest value to the enterprise.

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