Southwest Demonstrates Why Having A True Technology Executive Is Critical
As if crippling weather wasn’t enough, Southwest dashed holiday hopes, stranding its treasured customers in moments of need. And all for the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.
Every CEO should see the failure of Southwest’s crew scheduling software as an example of why technology, and spending on the right technology, is not just fundamental — it’s critical, else pay the consequences. Southwest’s reputation was lost in an instant by not executing on something that the company must have to succeed. Southwest Airlines, to its credit, has promised to unearth and fix the flaws.
What’s true for Southwest Airlines is also true of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), where the technology we rely on to keep airplanes flow keeps revealing its fragility. Just today, the FAA had to reboot the entire country because of technology failure.
This is a call for every CEO to be sure that they have a respected and battle-tested tech exec at the helm, not just to execute vital contributions to operations but also charged to secure customers and future-fit the company’s growth. At Southwest, for example, a review of the executive leadership team indicates that there is no clear technology executive, unlike at American Airlines, Delta, and JetBlue, which all have prominent technology leaders reporting to the CEO.
If ever there was a parable of disempowered technology leaders and a misunderstanding of technology’s contribution to business, Southwest’s holiday meltdown is it, joining other blunders that could have been foreseen, such as Ticketmaster’s Taylor Swift ticket disaster and Healthcare.gov’s site launch travesty.
At Southwest, it wasn’t a nail that was wanting. It was for want of a technology strategy to support the business — the want of an understanding that technology is the vital enabler of every business activity; the want of rigor in assessing the needs and gaps and costs of the technology vital to operations, let alone for innovation and growth; and the want of a technology executive in the room and at the helm where the highest decisions happen.
We see three commitments that boards and CEOs must make to empower their CIO or CTO to be a full member of the executive team:
- CEOs should design their leadership teams to include a single technology executive, whether it be a CIO or CTO, responsible for technology investments, operations, and innovation. Just as companies have a single CFO on the hook for financial management and a CMO for brand and marketing execution, companies need a single executive CIO.
- CIOs must be accountable for a future fit technology strategy managed by a technology “cabinet.” Just as the elected executive of a government manages the agenda and contributions of all the agencies of government to do the work of the nation, an executive CIO manages the “agencies” responsible for every aspect of technology to do the work of the business.
- CIOs are an essential part of the executive leadership team and should be held responsible and accountable for the technology contribution to business success. They should be responsible and accountable for managing resilient operations, for creating space for technology-enabled business innovation and transformation, and for bringing technological reality into the decisions, priorities, and schedules that the executive team makes to adapt to business reality.
Is this an impossible task? We don’t think so. Hundreds of enlightened CEOs elevate and trust their CIOs with executive responsibilities and accountability. There is a rising tide of executive CIOs who drive growth, get the most from high-tech and services providers, manage business technology, develop business ideas from emerging technologies, and operate resilient infrastructure.
For example, the inaugural winner of Forrester’s Technology Strategy Impact Award for North America, Oshkosh Corporation’s CIO Anupam Khare, is a good example of an empowered executive CIO. Anupam directly articulates the business value of technology platforms as a prime driver of Oshkosh’s contribution to achieve 30% growth by 2025. He says, to enable value: “We need to invest in platforms that we recognize are valuable. Then we can quickly deliver and scale. Once you have a platform, you have the clarity of value.” If only Southwest had endowed its crew scheduling system with such clarity.
Forrester can help you understand the role of an executive CIO and give direct guidance on the structures, organizations, strategies, and partnerships to accomplish your goals as an executive CIO.