MES Spring 2018 crowdTimes have changed, especially for the IT leader who isn’t just enabling marketing and sales to do their jobs better, but is now assuming a leadership role.

In my recent Midsize Enterprise Strategies blog, senior IT leaders were challenged to help their organizations differentiate from rivals and win in the market. Seems like a strange dichotomy, doesn’t it? After all, we associate differentiation with the marketing leader and winning in the market with the executives driving sales or the CEO.

Yet, the very fact that we are discussing those two issues in relation to CIOs and IT leaders means that times have changed. The biggest change has been the role of the IT leader who is not just enabling marketing and sales to do their jobs better, but is often leading the way. Just a couple of years ago, discussions centered on how the chief marketing officer along with other line of business executives were taking over IT, eliminating the need for CIOs. Well, that just didn’t happen. I have stood in front of many MES conference attendees preaching to those assembled that they had to evolve or they could become dinosaurs—or just fade away.

So, to keep this conversation going, we asked a few leading CIOs how they are applying their know-how to help their organizations differentiate and win.

Fight the Vicious Cycle

One of the brightest, young minds I know in midmarket IT put it this way, “In nearly every industry, technology is becoming a key way for leading companies to differentiate themselves. CIOs need to lead this differentiation for their company by understanding not just technology, but the company’s business, and being a trusted advisor to all other leaders within the business.”

Another IT leader is fighting what he characterizes as a vicious cycle of his competitors copying any innovation he puts into place nearly overnight. “This leaves a short window to market and capitalize on the innovation we work so hard to develop every day.” He is basically carrying the business on his back as a result.

So what is he doing? Well, he is working hard to ensure that all iterations of delivery bring real value to the business. He is managing the iterations in short time frames, collaborating closely with the business and verifying awareness of the value within a given iteration delivery. If it sounds intense, it is and these are the times we are living in so get used to it.

He also advises CIOs to act as a business partner, collaborating with stakeholders to balance revenue-generating activities, keeping the lights on, and eliminating waste and technical debt. “Work a vision of continuous improvement and readiness to adapt at every turn,” he said.

We have all heard how technology has been commoditized. Well, one IT leader says many businesses have now been commoditized and technology is what differentiates one organization from another. “Technology can help set us ahead in the business,” he said.

Know the Business to Grow the Business

Several leading IT professionals debated this issue over email, with everyone agreeing that technology is key to helping their businesses win but IT leaders must know the business to grow the business.

An IT leader at a consumer products company is trying to compete in the world of e-commerce and Amazon. That pressure is changing the landscape of who the customer is, how they shop, and how her organization wins their business. “Customer engagement is key and technology is critical to making that happen.” As a result, this executive is focused on mobile apps, augmented reality, changing the cost structures to compete with on-line sales or having the right analytics to drive decisions.

“It really is ‘Differentiate or die’, or worse, just fade away,” she said.

One veteran IT leader in the legal vertical is watching law firms merge or close shop due to a heightened competitive landscape. Who knew? “The competition is fierce and the landscape full of failed firms or firms having merged – the trend of law firm mergers is off the charts with a hope that bigger is better – but that has not always turned out to be true,” he said.

As a result, lawyers and partners of the firms are turning to technology to differentiate, and not just in small ways. “It all comes back to technology,” he said. “Instant access to clients, to information needed to serve clients—research tools, automation, budgeting models.” The CIO is helping this firm offer competitive fees and predictable costs to clients. That translates into winning.

Deliver the Right Information at the Right Time

Another IT leader chimed in and said, make business easy and deliver the right information at the right time. That formula will help any organization differ from rivals and perhaps gain share.

I’ll end with the lament of one IT leader. Paraphrasing management guru Peter Drucker, he said, the only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. His strategy for helping the business win is the thought that “the only thing worse than tomorrow being different is tomorrow being exactly the same as today.”

If the IT leader is to help the business advance, tomorrow better look a great deal different when it comes to the tech applied to differentiating and winning.