Every business of significant scale operates within limits. Retail businesses have to provide high availability to their customers, often requiring round-the-clock monitoring and maintenance. Manufacturing businesses have to comply with safety standards both within the workplace and for the environment. All corporations have to studiously observe the specifics of the Commonwealth’s Corporations Act.
Limits define the scope of a business’s capacities. You can do this but cannot do that; you must do this but never do that. ‘That which is not forbidden is mandatory’ might draw a wry smile, but in business, it’s sometimes true.
No area of business labours under more regulations than the finance sector. Hundreds of years of businesses gambling with (and frequently losing) other people’s money have given the legal system a cynical attitude toward financial enterprises. Add to this the natural honeypot of large piles of money – as American bank robber Willie Sutton observed, you rob banks because that’s where the money is – and a heavy regulatory framework can be seen as both prudential and protective. Banks need to be protected from thieves – and from themselves.
If banks have become technology businesses – as ME Bank CIO Mark Gay suggests in episode 3 of the Lenovo ThinkFWD CIO Podcast Series – the CIO carries the weight of all these burdens. It starts with safety and protection: as Gay points out, the only reason he could walk into the office in the morning and find himself unemployed by evening would be for his failure to protect the bank. In the story of Carl Woerndle we’ve already learned how cyber attacks can devastate a business. Eternal vigilance is the price of keeping the CIO’s chair.
Yet, rather than freezing ME Bank into a rigid and inflexible business model, Mark Gay suggests that above all else the constraints imposed by the requirement for security can instead serve as enablers for innovation. Gay identifies a strategic goal for every CIO obsessed by information security: making security part of the fundamental design processes turns the ‘department of no’ into an engine that can power business processes forward.
When constraints can be transformed into design elements, an organisation finds itself with capacities where it previously saw roadblocks. This isn’t a particularly new idea. Forty years ago, innovative musician Brian Eno thrilled the worlds of art and music by developing compositions that accentuated their constraints. Amplify a constraint and it becomes a framework.
This kind of thinking separates the CIO as infrastructure maintainer from the CIO as capacity builder. Yes, it’s important to keep things up and running, but it’s more important for the CIO to keep the business gently disrupted, exploring and extending the outer range of business capacities as it transforms its constraints into connections between business and customer.
An emphasis on customer experience has become a common thread for all CIOs. Whether internal consumers of services, or external customers for business products, all CIOs must now focus on delivering customer experiences so clean they fade from view. The best-performing CIOs will be largely invisible, because they’re agile, responsive and focused on customer needs. This creates quite a dilemma: how does a CIO advocate for a bigger budget when it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the corporate oil?
There’s at least one answer to that question – a CIO needs to be resourced to keep pace in a very rapidly changing IT landscape. The smartphone revolution has barely begun, and has only barely touched business processes within or outside the business. Yes, ME Bank’s customers are moving to mobile interfaces, but that transition is far from complete, and ME Bank’s employees continue to use laptop or desktop-based interfaces to the bank’s systems. In another 10 years it will all be smartphones everywhere – except, perhaps, in the data centre – so every CIO will soon have their hands full managing a transition to a business environment that is entirely mobile in every interaction.
That’s a constraint that needs to be embodied at the core of a CIO’s design thinking, because in that constraint we’ll find an entirely new range of capacities and productivity, and in turn further enhance the user experience.