CIO 2.0

How can chief executives fuse marketing and information technology functions to better connect their employees with customers? Consider that new breed on the board: the chief innovation officer. Twenty years ago, you’d have struggled to find a chief innovation officer on a company board. The acronym CIO firmly referred to chief information officer, a role that often solely focused on information technology. Meanwhile, through the 1990s, chief marketing officers (CMOs) started their own path to ubiquity, combining the communications strength of top marketers with senior operational responsibility.

This successfully created two defined chiefdoms – the CMO had the big marketing ideas, the CIO owned the technology that ran the business. One was largely a back-office function, often aloof from customers, that supported processes; the other focused on customers’ world view, with a working knowledge of a limited choice of tried-and-tested, time-honoured channels.

The facility to bring knowledge into the business from the very people who sustain it creates an open-source culture for innovation and invention.

This all worked well until the early 2000s, when it became clear that digital technology, digital marketing and marketing technology were about to become inseparable and indistinguishable. The unexpected and unprecedented consumer adoption of the internet, the rise of e-commerce, the mobile revolution and the social web – enhanced by the power of big data – all represent revolutions in the way consumers live their lives and how executives run their companies.

NEW ERA, NEW STRUCTURE

Fast-forward to 2014 and a new role is emerging in corporate structure to make sense of and harness these advances. In less than a decade, the chief innovation officer has been created by – and adopted within – the C-suite. Major companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Citigroup, GE and Amazon all have one, and global headhunters are clambering to add more to their books.

In most of the aforementioned brands, the chief innovation officer is doing what my opening paragraphs suggest is logical – merging the roles of CMO and (the original) CIO. That involves combining big consumer-centric marketing and communications ideas with big technology-empowered information strategies. By merging both, end-to-end business transformation is a more intuitive and achievable process because there is no missing link between the message that creates value and the channels that deliver it.

The word ‘transformation’ is important here. Our world has outgrown simple ‘change management’ that implies gradual iterative development or the ‘bolt on’ approach that existed for many years. Nothing simply changes anymore, it transforms. And often overnight. The gap between old and new – the invention cycle – is shrinking continuously. It took 89 years for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone to gain 150 million users, while it took television 38 years. Sony sped up the game by taking just seven years to reach 150 million Walkman users worldwide, but Apple’s iPhone then broke that record, doing it in less than three years. Most recently, online content specialist BuzzFeed hit 150 million users in just a year.

Now, more than ever, the communication of a company’s narrative, product, service, strategy or vision has to be directly connected to the technology that will both drive and deliver against that. Good chief innovation officers are exactly that, they are connectors. Connecting people within an organisation to people outside is not an easy task. Combining marketing and technology, alongside all that comes with it (data, analytics, devices, the internet, content, etc), makes the job easier.

DEVELOPING AN ECOSYSTEM FOR INNOVATION

A great chief innovation officer goes one step further by enabling better dialogue between customers and all employees, not just those that are customer facing. Organisations are developing an entire innovation ecosystem, where narrative, product, service, strategy and vision all sit together – wrapped around the people inside and outside the business.

Done properly, the facility to bring knowledge into the business from the very people who sustain it creates an open-source culture for innovation and invention. This reflects the growing trend for consumer influence and closeness to companies’ core strategies. We’ve seen this trend prove its value in recent years with leading brands such as Starbucks and its MyStarbucksIdea platform, where customers eventually created entire product lines through collaborative innovation.

Then there are more complex initiatives such as NIKEiD – the online custom sports and fashion experience from Nike – and Unilever’s successful Open Innovation platform, where anyone (not just scientists) can respond to challenges set by the company, ranging from global health initiatives such as safe drinking water to ideas directly affecting product marketing and communications, such as its quest to develop a “toothpaste that amazes your mouth”.

All of these initiatives are different, but all share the same DNA. These brands have fused marketing effort with technological capability to mobilise people and generate real collaboration, which creates value. Intrinsic to this output value is: a more loyal customer; bottom-line results; a more motivated workforce; a momentum-building product; an aligned narrative; and a foundation for trust and reputation.

I would argue that that’s what a chief innovation officer should do.