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CIO opinion: It is, after all, with us people, stupid!

20170927_Sykes-5336October has been busy with gatherings of CIOs. One thread that has run through most presentations, panels and discussions has been the human dimension. Resource shortage has been one clear issue, but also a growing focus on the cultural and the experiential dimensions of technology-enabled change. One vigorous health sector CIO described her detailed change agenda and the implementation challenge she faced with her inherited ‘IT team in the basement’ – long established, experienced professionals, but of an older generation. ‘You need a few millennials in your basement’ I said to her as she returned from the stage – she laughed and heartedly agreed.

Some of the new capabilities now at our finger tips slip into daily use quite naturally. I am a trustee of a foundation that supports the annual international summer music school held at Dartington, Devon each August. A measure of the sheer professionalism of those attending is that, in its final week this August, they created, assembled, developed, rehearsed and then performed a full concert version of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes – full orchestra, soloists and choir. All in one week flat. Everyone had their smart ‘phones – and everyone had access to WhatsApp. This was how the whole exercise was coordinated across the extensive Dartington campus. Magic!

But, as the experience of our vigorous health sector CIO demonstrates, there are complications! So I want to use this column, my third for Horizon Business Innovation, to share two areas of personal experience that I see as particularly relevant today.

The first I describe as reverse mentoring. Between 1989 and 1993 I lived and worked in Japan, implementing a £55 million manufacturing investment for the former chemical major ICI Plc. I was an ICI Japan board member – and seniority was still taken very seriously – hierarchy ruled!  I had visited Japan a number of times previously, forming good friendships with a small coterie of younger ICI Japan management who then formed the core of my new management team. As their boss, I held the experience in the business for which we were building the plant – I had been in senior roles internationally in the business for the previous five years. This experience my new team in Japan lacked – so I had to act both as their leader and their mentor, their teacher.

But doing business in Japan was totally new to me. The experience there lay with my young team. Hierarchy presented the challenge.  I realised that I had to create an environment in which these young junior managers could have the confidence to help, to mentor, their older senior to learn how to make it work in Japan.  This is what I came to describe as enabling reverse mentoring

Fast forward to our current age. In many companies I visit I can draw significant parallels – older management well experienced in their business, but cautious, at times very defensive, about the impact of the new ways of doing their business with contemporary IT – younger management, the millennials, totally at home with social media and other dimensions of ‘the new’. Here, I argue, the time is ripe to develop a culture of balanced mentoring/reverse mentoring along the lines of how I worked in Japan.     

The second is the concept of the Cultural Web.  Developed by Jerry Johnson at Cranfield Business School in the 1980’s, I came across it in the context of practical change management within the ICI businesses I was working with. Jerry Johnson identified the factors that influence the organisational culture of a business – and which tend to act as barriers to change. These factors include organisational structure, control systems, the power structure (who makes the decisions), embedded symbols/logos, rituals and routines (management meetings!) and – most key – the stories and myths that convey a message about what is valued in the business.

All these factors tend to lock the existing culture in place. So to bring about change each has to be constructively reworked. Faced with the challenge of the ways that contemporary IT can change how business can be done (/how competitors may well do it!) – the question is how to rework this cultural web.  My experience was that bringing in outside consultants rarely worked – the need was to rework the cultural web from the inside, to gain ownership from the staff whose behaviours helped shape it. A simple model emerged:  a leader (the CEO?) with a clear vision ‘of the new’, an effective story teller who could carry conviction with the staff in workshops focused on designing the new, and an experienced facilitator to help deliver these workshops.        

It is, after all, with us people, stupid! And, in my experience, effective story tellers are the real change resource we all now need. Any volunteers?

About the author:

Richard Sykes is a businessman with over 40 years experience that spans the chemical & IT industries, and the world of visual & performing arts. Sykes works as a board-level strategic analyst, assurer and advisor in the management, exploitation and sourcing of information & communications technology (ICT).

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About Richard Sykes 11 Articles
I am a businessman with over forty years' experience that spans the chemical & IT industries, and the world of visual & performing arts. I have held senior executive roles in a major global multinational, and non-executive chairmanships of smaller ventures & not-for-profits. I have lived & managed businesses internationally.
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