Speak the Language of Business

Joe Topinka is vice president of multichannel commerce and chief information officer for Red Wing Shoes, the Minneapolis-based work boot company that has served customers for more than 100 years.

In addition to driving the IT strategy and operations at the iconic company, Joe is a sort of “CIO whisperer,” helping other CIOs understand the changing nature of business and technology’s role in driving innovation.

We recently sat down with Joe to discuss the importance for IT to demystify the function, become a trusted strategic adviser and bridge the chasm to help C-suite executives think differently about IT.

Joe discusses the need for CIOs to be able to communicate the value of IT to business partners. He cites Gartner research that finds, “those (CEOs) that are interested in IT don’t even have technology investments in the top three priorities, organizationally.”

This fact underscores how critical it is for CIOs to be a part of the strategic decision team. Joe says that far too often, strategic decisions are made by the executive leadership team, only to then be handed to IT to enable. Complicating things further, strategic directions aren’t defined well enough for IT to take action. Because strategy — which requires technology and IT involvement — is created in a vacuum, CIOs struggle with what IT initiatives define those goals.

Joe clearly understands the need to help CIOs cross the chasm to business strategy, and we’re thankful for his time.

Read the video transcript here:

Jessica Taylor: Hi, I’m Jessica Taylor and I am responsible for c-suite programs within Dell Services.  And I’m honored today to have with me Joe Topinka, who is the CIO for Redwing Shoe Company.  So thank you, Joe, for being here with me today.

Joe Topinka: My pleasure.

Jessica Taylor: So you were talking about demystifying IT for the c-suite.  Can you tell me a little bit about that topic and your involvement in some research that you’ve done?

Joe Topinka: Well, you know, it’s a very timely topic because I think first, the research that I see shows that c-suite executives have the highest interest in IT in almost a decade.  And the real challenge is that even though that interest is high, they’re not able to translate that into actual investments within their organizations.  In fact, the research that I just saw from Gartner shows that those people that are interested in IT don’t even have technology investments in their top three priorities organizationally.  And I think there’s sort of a backdrop that really kind of explains that.  I think that the c-suite essentially has a confidence gap within IT and it stems from a long history of thinking that IT doesn’t matter, going back to that Harvard Business Review article a decade ago.  They’re also complaining about the spending that IT does.  They’re afraid of IT.  They don’t like to ask about IT.  They’re embarrassed about their lack of knowledge.  They also don’t understand the notion that customer experience really defines the brand and customer engagement now.  And part of all of that stems from the fact that while that’s all true, IT leaders don’t really speak the language of business.  And so that creates this chasm effect that you have in companies today.  And that’s where the problems really stem from.

Jessica Taylor: We’ve done some research recently with Forbes and we interviewed business leaders.  And they came back at the rate of 76% say they want IT to take on a more trusted advisory role within setting business strategy.  What are your thoughts on that?

Joe Topinka: While I think that’s a great goal and what I’ve actually seen in real life, at least in the organizations that I’m familiar with is that while c-suite executives say that, a lot of the strategic initiatives aren’t well enough defined for IT to really take some action on it.  And I think a lot of times, the strategy is either sort of aspirational where, let’s say, I want to take a business segment and we say things like let’s expand that market.  But we don’t talk about what that means in terms of how we’re going to do that.  So IT organizations struggle with developing the initiatives that drive that vision or goal statement.  And I think that’s part of the issue too.  And when c-suite executives are defining those goals, I think too often what happens is the c-suite will go off on their own and not invite IT to that conversation, and then come back and do the big reveal, and say, hey IT, let’s get you on board with the strategy now that we have it laid down.  And IT hasn’t had an opportunity to really contribute to shaping the initiatives that help to drive it.

Jessica Taylor: So when you talk about bridging the chasm, explain what is it that you would advise CIOs to do?

Joe Topinka: Sure.  The chasm is there and I think the c-suite and IT leaders both have a responsibility to think differently about IT.  And I think as IT leaders, we’ve been waiting for the c-suite execs to come across the chasm on their own and I think that’s not going to happen.  That’s sort of learned helplessness in a way.  And I think we need to reach across the chasm and say to them, look, there are things happening in the marketplace.  We need you to be more evangelist and teach them about the mobile mind shift that’s going on and how that’s really transforming the way consumers engage with companies.  And make that personal, make it real.  And then the other thing we could do a better job of is explaining this age of the customer phenomenon where customers now co-own our brand now and they have more influence over price, and brand, and expectations.  In fact, the customer experience really does define the brand with this proliferation of mobile devices.  That’s really where the brand gets made or not made

Jessica Taylor: That is great insight.  And again, I appreciate you sharing it with us and with other CIOs out there looking to become more strategic visionaries within their organizations.

Joe Topinka: My pleasure.

Jessica Taylor: Thanks.

Joe Topinka: Thank you very much.

Leave a Reply