Kristin Russell: The CIO as chief anthropologist

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Kristin Russell,
Former secretary of technology and chief information officer, State of Colorado
Editor’s note:
Kristin has moved on from this role since the interview.

Many CIOs talk about how their jobs are becoming more strategic in nature, but Kristin Russell has a second title to prove it. As the state of Colorado’s CIO, she’s responsible for building, managing and maintaining the IT systems required to deliver critical government services. As secretary of technology, she spearheads the official IT economic development strategy designed to attract new companies and increase the number of tech workers across the state. Here, Russell talks about how the best CIOs are increasingly more concerned with anthropology than technology, and offers one key question that will help any ambitious CIO get ahead.

The Denver Business Journal named you its public sector CIO of the Year in part for your role in building and launching the Colorado Information Marketplace. Can you talk a bit about CIM and the problems it’s intended to solve?

Sure. It’s well known that, especially in government, various departments collect information from citizens over and over again. The Colorado Information Marketplace is in part an effort to stop this data redundancy by providing a secure and usable platform for sharing data. But it’s also designed to increase the use of data both internally and externally while increasing transparency. There’s a public view that allows any resident of Colorado to rate, request or download usable datasets into mobile and Web applications. CIM also allows us to bring structured, semi-structured and unstructured data together and use it for analytics across departments to give the state the opportunity to make better decisions.

Decisions about what?

For example, Colorado is very, very interested in figuring out how we can use data to improve our educational system. We started a program called Relevant Information to Strengthen Education or RISE. We’ve started thinking about the choices people make from the time they are children in kindergarten until they get their first job. We wondered whether we could follow that path. Did they go to private school? Public school? Charter? And how did those choices affect their career? We have the data to answer those questions, but it’s always been spread across five different agencies and departments. We’ve managed to link that data through CIM in a way that allows people to draw conclusions about the paths that lead to better outcomes in terms of education, economic development and employment in later years. This is really exciting stuff. We all hear about the power of big data, but it’s not having loads and loads of data that’s important. The data needs to be usable, intelligent and relevant. Only then can it help us make better decisions.

What are the challenges of making the government more transparent?

Any time you’re talking about big data in government, the first thing that comes up is information security and making sure that we are really adhering to federal standards. We offer data-governance-in-a-box, so to speak, providing everything necessary to start sharing data, whether that’s tools to create privacy statements, data dictionaries, checklists, etc. We also have a government data advisory board made up of data stewards from across all state agencies who help guide the discussion about the effective use of standards and sharing of data. Another challenging aspect is that we’re sometimes providing life and death services and every minute matters, so being able to connect information is critical. If we have information that suggests that an at-risk child is being considered for a move into a home that’s not safe, for instance, there’s a real sense of urgency about processing that information and taking action.

How has your thinking evolved as a CIO?

I was always on the business side and years ago I began to realize that CIOs were really losing their way. It’s chief information officer, right? It’s not chief pusher of technology or chief provider of tools. Now our roles as chief information officers are more about understanding. In a way, what’s really important is anthropology. We need to understand people and human dynamics and behavior. How do we use technology to bring more effective, efficient and elegant services to a consumer or a citizen? Answering that question requires a connection to the people we’re trying to serve, looking at things from their perspective.

How do you do that?

You need to get out of your office, for starters. We can’t solve problems that we don’t see. We have to understand how consumers and citizens engage with our companies and our governments and we have to understand the tools that they use. Of course we also need to be effective communicators. My team is looking at developing something akin to a customer experience team. How are the agencies on the frontlines using the technology that we’re providing? What are their frustrations? We have to lean into the relationship we have with the business to help solve their business problems. Data, metrics and measurements allow us to synthesize information effectively, but that’s not the same as solving problems. To be an effective CIO, you really have to dig deeper and ask the next question and really get into the operations.

How does the working dynamic between the CIO and the departments change when your role shifts from merely providing technologies?

Historically, the IT department has always been the “just say no” department. I’ve always aspired for us to be the “how can we help?” department. It’s the difference between being a provider of technology versus a broker of IT services. It’s a subtle but important shift in thinking. The IT department doesn’t always have all of the right answers. So how do we match some of the best things that we see in the market with the ideas coming in from the agencies who say, “Hey I came across X and it would really help my business. Can you help me enable it at the enterprise level?” This can be radical and hard to accept for CIOs who think they’re trying to protect the company by standardizing on internal solutions only. But every ambitious CMO or CFO or any department head is going to be searching for technology solutions to add value. Technology is so ubiquitous now and so I think that openness becomes important. As a CIO, you basically have two options. You can either turn a blind eye, think that every good idea starts with you, and so decide not to help people. Or you can say, ‘Let’s partner in a way that helps you look for more innovative solutions, but that also protect you and the company.

A lot of CIOs are talking about how their jobs are becoming more strategic—but you’ve got the dual titles to prove it. What does it take for a CIO to be considered someone who can drive revenue growth and economic development?

Number one, it’s important that CIOs are a part of those business discussions. When the CIO reports to the CEO, that brings exposure to the bigger business problems that the company is trying to solve, and I think that’s really important. But on a more tactical level, one of the first things that I recommend to my peers is to go into the CEO’s office and ask one question: If you had access to a specific dataset that you feel would have the potential to transform our company, what would it be? CEOs know what data points they would love to get their hands on. I guarantee they’ll have an answer. But too often CIOs try to guess what that dataset is, or provide data that they think might be valuable. The problem is CIOs haven’t asked that question and once we know the answer then we can go back and construct how we deliver that information so that it’s effective.

Why do you think CIOs don’t generally ask that question?

I’m not sure. I think historically CIOs have felt it’s their responsibility to give information rather than to ask the right questions. I can tell you that CMOs, on the other hand, are generally far more likely to ask the question. And so in that way, at least, the IT department needs to become more like marketing. We should be asking the head of every department what piece of information would transform how they operate and improve their operation? They’ll all have an answer—and that answer will potentially be transformative. Remember, this isn’t really a matter of technology anymore. It’s anthropology. All this noise about big data and analytics? It’s really just about understanding human behavior. That’s what is important going forward.

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