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Dell CIO: Stop asking the business what it wants and start 'futuring'

Dell CIO Adriana "Andi" Karaboutis is channeling Steve Jobs these days, in a manner of speaking. "As a CIO, I've stopped asking people what they want," Karaboutis told an audience of her peers during an MIT Sloan CIO Symposium panel discussion. In Jobs' famous quote, the rationale for not asking customers what they want was that by the time a company builds the product, customers will want something new.

For Dell IT, anticipating what internal employees want next, rather than giving them what they ask for now, has led to a new way of working. Instead of asking business folks for requirements, Karaboutis insists her staff observe, observe, observe. Their job is to actually spend time with internal business people to see how they work, where they run into roadblocks, and how IT can help. "We stop asking and start thinking -- and [start] 'futuring,'" Karaboutis said, defining furturing by quoting another entrepreneur with a golden touch, Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

In addition to being close observers, Karaboutis wants her IT team to imagine the future -- and, "surprise and delight" the business. That means surprising both internal customers and external customers. And it is happening. By working closely with the business, IT helped develop Dell's Quick Resource Locator application, which turns smartphones into QR code scanners and will also be useful to Dell's external customers.

Developing a workforce that observes and invents doesn't happen overnight, and, as she explained to SearchCIO's Nicole Laskowski in this post-MIT panel video interview, it's something Karaboutis works on every day.

I want to go back to the QR Code example just briefly. How did you make the connection that the external customer would be interested in the same product that you've developed for internal use?

Adriana "Andi" Karaboutis: We do a lot of 'day in the life' exercises. We ask, but then we just also observe how our customers are doing work. And we think, 'Okay, that shouldn't take that long.' Or, 'This process -- we've got a better way to do it. Why are they doing it that way?' We come back with a better solution our customers didn't know that they needed. And we do that internally for our Dell employees as well as externally for our customers.

During your panel discussion, I think you referred to that as 'futuring' -- or wondering what the world would look like if ….

Karaboutis: Exactly. Yes. Benchmarking is looking at what everybody else is doing. Futuring isn't trying to predict the future; futuring is trying to develop a, 'What if, you know, there was a world, where…' And you sort of shape that. That's what we call futuring.

Was that a difficult thing to institute with IT?

Karaboutis: We're still instituting, Nicole. So the answer to that would be yes, it is, because, again, traditional IT was a mindset of, 'Let's go to the business and find out what they need.' We asked them to prioritize. Then we asked them for a requirements document. What do you need, et cetera? We did away with the IT steering committee, as I said on stage, and we built the business architecture team.

Now we talk about how the input is the strategy of the company, where we want to go, and we talk about how to get there. And so we're prioritizing and doing tools of engagement, as they say in the industry, and also the applications needed for the capability of the company. But the mindset of, 'Don't keep asking, we have an opinion; we know technology better; we stay on top; put some ideas out there; imagine a world where…; do incubations and put them out there.' Those are the things that have turned into surprises and delights for our customers.

Who sits on the business architecture team?

Karaboutis: It's co-chaired by myself and another representative out of the vice chairman's office. And we have a representative from each of our four business units, our enterprise, our clients, service and software business units, as well as our functional areas -- finance, HR, legal, marketing, sales, et cetera. So you've got representation, but it's the entire company, per se, through that constituent team coming together and developing the blueprint to drive the strategy.

And who pushed for that business architecture group versus an IT steering committee?

Karaboutis: Michael Dell; our vice chairman, Jeff Clarke; our then CFO; and myself.

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Is it time to get rid of the IT steering committee?
The steering committee should be providing guidance to ensure IT alignment with the business. If a CIO only sees them as a roadblock or hassle, then chances are the CIO and possibly the steering committee don't understand their role. Without integration of IT and Business strategy IT will always struggle in adding value and will generally be one step behind where they should be in terms of enabling the business to achieve competitive and strategic objectives.
IT steering comittee is the engine or leadership committee which will steer business into IT enabled performing organization.
Steering Committees are needed but they need more focus on what the roles and responsibilities are of the participants. It should not be a dumping ground for requirements.