Are you an e-Leader?

By Professor Sharm Manwani
21 Aug 2014 View Comments

Why is e-Leadership important
Aligning IT to business goals has been a CIO priority for many years, reflecting an ongoing difficulty for organisations and a significant test of the quality of IT leadership. CIOs who efficiently manage the IT infrastructure and applications will be recognised as good IT managers, but without proactively enabling effective business processes and targeted information, they do not fully merit the CIO title.

The effects of poor business IT alignment are evident everywhere. In one recent case, the Co-Op Bank attempted to replace its core banking systems but had to cancel the project in 2013 after spending almost £300m. The already ambitious project had been made even more challenging by external factors such as the Britannia merger. A programme evaluation concluded that frequent changes in leadership had been a key issue and that a replacement lacked experience of a change project of the scale the Co-op Bank was attempting.

Further reading

The Co-Op debacle illustrates some of the reasons why alignment is so difficult. A large IT transformation is complex and expensive, typically replacing legacy IT that has run for many years and needing strong technical skills on both the old and new platforms. The technology migration is largely within the remit of the IT group, although the impact on the other business departments needs to be managed.

What is particularly challenging is the time that a major IT transformation takes. During this period, the business goals can change dramatically in a fast-moving organisation. It is much more feasible to maintain momentum and executive commitment if the IT transformation is aligned to and enabling a business transformation. But this places greater emphasis on the leadership skills, as we can recognise in the Co-op Bank case.

What e-Leadership skills are needed?
What skills are needed? From my experience running major business IT transformations as a European CIO and directing e-Leadership education programmes, the big challenge is to combine three diverse skills. The first is strong business competence with a comprehensive understanding both of line functions and of cross-functional business processes.

Second is the ability to keep up-to-date with emerging technologies while making cost-effective use of existing technologies. Third, and from case feedback and experience the most difficult, is to demonstrate the personal leadership and political skills to deliver alignment.

Exacerbating the alignment skills issue is the expanding role of IT in organisations and society. Over time, we have seen that digital technologies have moved IT from the "back office" administration into enhancing the "front line" both of customer experience and innovative products. Gartner's original nexus of forces (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) has been supplemented by other emerging technologies, for example by the internet of things, and 3D (and 4D) printing. While some CIOs have embraced this additional challenge, others have not taken the lead and in consequence have seen the role and/or responsibilities of chief digital officer go to colleagues or external recruits.

How to develop e-Leadership
Research commissioned by the European Commission and other groups has shown that there is a significant shortage of e-Leadership skills. Developing these skills solely on-the-job is not straightforward, although the other extreme of doing an academic qualification without experience is not an alternative.

The best educational programmes aim to develop insights by combining conceptual frameworks with relevant case studies in all three aspects of e-Leadership, connecting business, technology and personal development.

Professor Sharm Manwani teaches e-Leadership at Henley Business School

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