CIOs as Drivers of Digital Transformation

By Klara Jelinkova, CIO & VP, Rice University

Klara Jelinkova, CIO & VP, Rice University

Technology has a tremendous transformative potential to drive innovation. However, many CIOs are often weighed down by legacy applications and cannot easily free up resources to drive business change. The issue with legacy applications is twofold:  

1. It’s expedient to rely on customized business processes that fit more traditional ways of doing business.

2. Older technologies may not be easily integrated via standard application program interfaces. Data in those applications are “locked-in” proprietary data models and have not been optimized for enterprise-wide business analysis and decision support. 

“One of the key roles of a CIO is to be the champion of the end-user experience in business systems deployment”

Changing that status quo is difficult and requires close partnerships with business leaders. Gartner recently suggested adopting a generational approach via bi-modal IT. In bimodal IT an organization is split to function in a traditional mode and a new innovative mode. This is an appealing approach, especially for many of us who still remember vividly the difficulties of our initial enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations. However, this approach might seem appealing on the surface, but it fundamentally falls short of what enterprises need from their CIOs—to drive a digital transformation. Without a digital transformation, innovations on the margin will inevitably become the next set of legacy systems to maintain, ultimately increasing—not decreasing—the amount of technological debt enterprises carry. When I think about digital transformation, I think about two key components, data for decision support and workflow from an end-user perspective.   

Data for Decision Support 

Previously legacy applications data models, user interfaces and workflows were built around the business office that the application was primarily supporting. The data model within an HR system, for example, was based on what HR needed, not what the employee needed or what the enterprise ultimately needed to know for its workforce analysis at the enterprise level. As we embrace a business analysis-based approach at Rice University, we are moving toward producing analysis-ready datasets that incorporate information across several systems and are based on enterprise-wide analytical needs versus transactional reporting needs.   

The data sets in our data warehouse are our gold standard. Our data warehouse is built on a traditional structured model using Oracle technologies. However, we also recognize that a rich analysis can occur when that data is combined with departmental (unit) data that can enrich our certified datasets and provide for qualitative analysis. We use Tableau and are piloting the use of Hadoop to allow departments to incorporate what we internally call “wild data.” Our strategy will allow for integration of rich datasets that can be important for qualitative analysis and exploration of second as well as third-level questions. It is our hypothesis that this technology enablement will ultimately allow for a higher degree of sophistication and richer analytical capabilities.   

The obvious downside is the quality of the “wild data.” The Office of Institutional Research at Rice University plays an integral role. The department not only plays a significant role in data certification but also in evaluating the analysis and the level of veracity of the data that has been used to enrich certified data sets. This project is in its early stages, but our hope is that by disintegrating analysis from transactional systems and by allowing data to be enriched in meaningful ways by our academic departments (an analog of product-based business units), we will over time improve our ability to provide for enterprise-wide business intelligence and data analysis that is meaningful for the various lines of business. The core role of the CIO is to make this possible.   

Workflow from an End-User Perspective: 

One of the key roles of a CIO is to be the champion of the end-user experience in business systems deployment. Most ERP deployments followed a model where IT partnered with another central unit such as finance or HR and automated processes within the department. Customizations were made to allow the unit to more readily adopt technology and reduce the change-management effort needed to put the system into place. Even today some vendors try to sell a technology product directly to business units with only a passing acknowledgment that the business unit itself represents only a minority of the end users of that system in any given enterprise. This legacy methodology pays little attention to the large population of end users—employees, students, clients, and customers—that have to interact with the system to get their work done.  

A key role of a CIO is to look at the experience of the majority of the end users and to think about that experience across multiple support units. The CIO needs to try to assure that this experience is cohesive and optimized from the view of the end user, not the view of the functional units providing their individualized services. CIOs have a significant opportunity to drive digital transformation by providing pathways (overarching applications and workflows) that allow end users to navigate across systems to get their work done, while at the same time supporting the specialized workflows within the business units and transactional systems. This, in turn, allows for innovation to enter even more traditional IT areas and ultimately to drive digital transformation from within rather than as an “add-on.”  

The opportunities for CIOs to be advocates for enterprise-wide decision support and end-user advocacy provide the opening to drive digital transformation in the enterprise. The digital transformation that CIOs need to drive to support CEOs and the boards of their companies is based on transforming the business by following the principles that initially drove the Internet revolution in the first place: (1) democratizing data and access to data and (2) thinking about end users and their experience. On that path CIOs will be able to innovate at the core of the business and allow themselves to break vendor lock-in by freeing data and workflows from proprietary systems.