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Empowering the CIO: Innovation in Action

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Empowering the CIO

Not long ago I moderated a unified communications panel at a CIO conference that was taking place in Hong Kong. To keep things interesting, the organizer conducted live-polling during the event, firing out questions every few minutes and quickly broadcasting the results.

One of the first questions the attending CIOs were asked was, “What is your priority for the next year?” I was excited to the see that 73% of respondents said that their key priority would be “innovation.”

Incredible, I thought, and began to imagine what that level of development would mean for companies looking for new ways to improve their operations. Not to mention what new services their customers might expect.

However, the mood was shattered about 20 minutes later, when I read the results of another live-polling question. This time about how CIOs actually allocate their budgets. Over 70% of the respondents said their budgets were mostly dedicated to just doing the basic stuff like keeping the lights on and the servers running. Less than 6% of them mentioned innovation.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between what CIOs would like to do, and what they find themselves having to do in order to keep the business running smoothly. The question is why? And what can organizations do to empower their CIOs so that they really can innovate, rather than spend all their time and hard-won IT budget just running on the spot!

Metrics Matter

Part of the reason for this situation could be reporting lines. Many CIOs in Asia report to their CFOs, who are typically focused on financials rather than the strategic opportunities that the implementation of new technologies, such as unified communications can offer.

In practice, the IT initiatives that do get a green light are often financially oriented projects like ERP systems. Or else they are cost-driven, because CFOs are naturally interested in things that reduce CAPEX.

While the savings delivered by something like IP telephony can be enormous, most companies don’t have a very good handle on what they are spending on communications. That is largely because they don’t have the tools to measure it.

Of course, the picture changes dramatically as soon as an organization actually moves from a legacy telecommunications system to an IP telephony solution. Then it knows almost to the last penny exactly what it is spending and can even track and manage that spend in real-time if need be.

That kind of metric can be very compelling, especially to CFOs who are fundamentally motivated by money. Accordingly, my advice to CIOs is to start the IT innovation process with a measurement initiative to showcase the scale of the spending and the potential savings. Very often a vendor can help with that. Afterwards, securing the budget to fund the innovation is a lot easier.

Make Friends in High Places

Although CIOs are strong proponents of IP telephony, taking the next step – implementing unified communications – usually isn’t a CIO initiative. More often than not, the impetus for the shift comes from the very top of the organization – the CEO.

CEOs are plugged-in to the bigger operational picture and recognize the impact that even a modest boost in productivity – from using audio and video conferencing and document sharing – can have on the company as a whole.  

Research suggests that once an organization equips its staff with a unified communications solution – allowing them to do audio conferencing, document sharing and chat – there is an immediate productivity increase of between 10-20%.

The improvements are even better for companies with mobile workers and multiple sites. For someone like me, in charge of an Asia-wide business and travelling all the time, giving up my unified communications would cost me 30% of my productive time.

CEOs understand this sort of thing intimately and also have the power to tell the CIO and the CFO to make things happen. So, my advice to CIOs who want to innovate by introducing a more advanced communications infrastructure is to get the CEO on your side first.

Consider using them to beta-test a solution. Once they see the potential and, more importantly, experience the benefits personally, securing budget approval becomes less of a challenge.

Keep the Ball Rolling

Interestingly, the push to implement a final piece of the communications innovation puzzle – the transition from on-premises communications equipment to the latest generation of cloud-based solutions – often comes from a different direction.

It’s not the CIOs, nor even the CEOs. It’s again the CFOs, who like the idea of eliminating fixed assets and changing to a subscription-based, pay-as-you-go model. Cloud solutions are financially very compelling. It is also incredibly flexible, enabling companies to ramp up, scale down, accommodate spikes or do whatever they want whenever they need to.

However, I think the main thing to understand is that once a company takes those first steps to identify the benefits and sell them to the right stakeholders within an organization, it is much easier to move further down the road. That understanding may be the key to enabling CIOs to stop worrying so much about the lights, and focus more of their attention on innovations that can build a better business.

 frederic= Frederic Gillant joined ShoreTel in 2014 as vice president and managing director for Asia Pacific. Based in Singapore, Gillant leads ShoreTel’s go-to-market strategy across Asia Pacific managing the sales, channels, marketing and sales operations for the region. Other articles by Frederic are listed below: