Carl Wilson: Data as a driver of organizational change

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Carl Wilson
Executive vice president and chief information officer (retired), Marriott International, Inc.

With the rise of big data, how is the CIO’s role changing? What are the new relationships they need to develop? And how is it changing the dynamic in the c-suite?

For proactive and tuned-in CIOs, it greatly expands the more traditional role of the CIO. It changes the role from one of supporting the business strategy to having a very active and critical role in shaping the business strategy. This is especially true for companies in which information technology is a component of the product or service they market to the end consumer.

I believe it is the fiduciary responsibility of the CIO to partner with other c-level executives, especially the CMO, and lead change. With the convergence of big data and social software mining capabilities, the expectation for business growth and improved performance is a new reality for the CIO. The better you can get at predicting and meeting a customer’s behavior and needs, the more business you are going to get. That’s growth. And that should come from the CIO’s office.

Those CIOs who are most effective are business leaders first, who also have the accountability within their organizations to ensure needed, effective and secure information technology capabilities. And as business leaders, the company’s competitiveness needs to be their primary focus.

It used to be that the CIO would never go into a board meeting. But now, CIOs are expected to present to the board a minimum of once a year, sometimes more. And there are lots of companies seriously looking for board members with an IT background.

The primary language of business is finance, and that’s what raised the profile of the CFO. But analytics is the emerging language of business, and that’s elevating the CIO’s role.

So what should CIOs be doing to prepare for, accommodate or even foster these changes?

First of all, they need to be aware. They need to be aware of the potential effect of big data analytics. They need to be fully grounded in how their company makes money, the business processes behind it, and the relationships that exist within those processes, both internally and externally, all the way through to the end customer. And the reason they need to be versed in all this is so that they can see the opportunities to apply analytic capabilities for business benefit.

To me the real key is a very tight partnership between the information technology function and the marketing and sales function. They must work together seamlessly. In particular, enlightened consumer product and services companies are cultivating a much tighter and more effective working relationship between the offices of the CMO and the CIO. In fact, with the penetration of data analytics driving more key decisions in many companies, we are starting to see all c-suite level leaders getting in the game. There is a growing realization that it is no longer a spectator sport.

But it is the role of IT to get very well educated in all the opportunities and all the tools and capabilities and providers of technology, so that it can help the rest of the company sort through them, and jointly lead the charge to develop the data analytics strategy the company is going to follow.

It sounds like data is beginning to affect the organizational structure of companies. Is that what you’re seeing?

In some of our major consumer products and services companies, we are seeing the emergence of hybrid or fused analytical teams made up of workers from marketing, sales, information technology, corporate communications, legal and human resources. For organizations that are more advanced in applying analytics, we are seeing these teams made a permanent part of the organization structure, typically reporting either into the office of CIO or CMO.

I have not seen many companies really trying to contain the changes being brought about by data analytics. What I have seen is companies trying to get their minds around the value, role and positioning of data analytics capabilities within their organizations. In many ways success is defined by how quickly an organization’s culture can learn and change.

What kinds of skills and capabilities are needed in this new data-driven organization?

Hiring practices need to expand to bring in people who have strong skills in social media, statistics and social sciences such as psychology or sociology. If they can find people with all three of these skills, they should throw rose petals at their feet and hire them before their competition does.

But besides hiring new talent, you’ve got to cultivate data analytic capabilities throughout the enterprise, and not just in the IT function. People fresh out of school already have some training in IT. And now you’re able to put tools into the hands of the marketing department directly. The CIO should not just be teaching people to fish. They should be teaching them how to make fishing poles. That’s when you empower them to do the delivery themselves.

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