3 Things Every CIO Needs

Lt Gen Bill Bender, Chief, Information Dominance & CIO, United States Air Force
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Upon crossing into the Information Age, virtually every organization is either becoming more dependent on IT and cyber capabilities or they are transforming into a technology company. CIOs of these organizations can take one of two paths: leaders who influence and transform their organizations, or keepers of the status quo who become relegated to the confines of the traditional CIO role. The trajectory of your organization may well hinge on the direction the CIO heads.

This axiom rings true not only for business, but also government organizations—including the military. As the U.S. Air Force CIO, I contend our current and future missions’ success are contingent upon the effectiveness of our activities in, through, and from the cyberspace domain. We must leverage the opportunities in this newest of domains to remain relevant as a uniformed service in the 21st Century.

So whether your organization provides software applications, individualized transportation services, or national defense, the CIO must deliver on the following three items.

​  In the Air Force, we are working toward transforming our individualized IT architecture to a Joint Information Environment (JIE) with the other services. 

1) Vision: In military parlance, we refer to this as both “objective” and “unity of effort.” Essentially, it’s the authority to direct all efforts toward a clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable goal. You cannot make progress if your HR department, your sales team, and your operations group have different and competing IT goals.

As CIO, you must build and deliver on one objective for the entire organization; then have the authority and resources to make it happen. Without a singular authority, multiple system owners put the entire IT enterprise in jeopardy and by chasing varied and localized IT solutions based on individual needs.

Congress solidified the role of Department of Defense (DoD) CIOs through National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) and the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). These acts have determined the CIO as necessary to “provide better management and oversight of IT systems and operations within DoD.” Again, I contend, our services deserve better than CIOs who stop at managing and oversight: we need visionary leadership.

In the Air Force, we are working toward transforming our individualized IT architecture to a Joint Information Environment (JIE) with the other services. This singular vision requires enormous effort to merge architecture, information, and resources across the Department of Defense to drive each and every military mission to success—regardless of service. It’s a large task with several moving parts, but it is absolutely critical for success against 21stcentury adversaries. When our military missions succeed, we all win!

2) Agility: Operational agility, in the military, allows our forces to develop and shift among multiple solutions to a given challenge. This concept is addressed in the concepts of “speed” and “manuever.” Speed is well understood, but let me share with you the importance of speed, especially in the context of mission success.

The Air Force was forged in the Industrial Age to deliver air and space capabilities to defeat a known enemy during the Cold War. Our processes focused on building strategies, plans, planes, missiles, bombs, and pilots to support national military objectives; and we were able to leverage state-of-the-art capabilities from the Defense Industrial Base (DIB) to achieve mission success.

Fast forward to the Information Age where advances in capabilities happen at the speed of cyber. Digital capabilities are dispersed not amongst the DIB but across a myriad of small- and medium- sized tech firms, startups, and venture capitalists.  However, our acquisition processes are still operating as though we are purchasing Cold War capabilities at Cold War speeds. In short, the glacial pace of our current acquisition processes do not keep up with the revolutionary rate of change in IT and Cyber.  

We cannot acquire IT and Cyber capabilities quickly enough to leverage their benefits. We need more speed. As CIOs we must look for solutions we can implement quickly and effectively across the enterprise.

Maneuver, at its core, leverages flexibility in operations to gain asymmetric advantages (over business rivals, competing services, or combat adversaries). Teams must be knowledgeable enough to understand the full spectrum of the capabilities your organization provides, and they must correlate those operational functions with the IT and cyber components they deliver.

For CIOs to foster agility across the organization, you need the final component.

3) Innovation: While this term does not have a specific military counterpart, it is embedded in military culture. Hannibal Barca-- the Carthaginian general who used elephants to cross the Alps to carry his forces to face the Roman army-- quipped, “If we cannot find a way, we will make one.” Typically, innovation will force your organization to think differently. To succeed, your organization must have an innovative mindset, and the CIO is the perfect role to model and promote it.

Part of innovation rests in understanding our teams may not have all the answers. Collaborate with others to see problems from a different perspective to gain insights for solving problems in new ways. In my time as CIO, I’ve made it a priority to meet with CIOs from nearly every industry (large businesses to start ups), experts in academia, and colleagues in military and government to learn from each other: both what works well and what does not. I’ve gained invaluable insight through meeting these people and discussing challenges and solutions.

So how do you promote innovation and innovation within the workplace? Beyond modeling it, you can create space for innovative thought to occur. My staff works in the Pentagon, which traditionally consists of office suites filled with conference rooms, corner offices, and cubicles. With my encouragement, some of my offices have eschewed the boxy environment in favor of collaborative spaces. My staff leverages these areas to hold impromptu think sessions and enable solution teams to tackle my highest priority problems.

As CIO of your organization, endeavor to move beyond the traditional CIO roles and lead your organization’s success. Use the concepts of vision, agility, and innovation to transform culture chart the path to sustained success.

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