Think of successful IT leadership as a musician in perfect rhythm with bandmates – everyone in synch, performing their best. Getting there means hiring well, fostering a culture of trust, strong governance, and more, explains Patrick Caine, CIO of the Virginia Farm Bureau.

If you hang around musicians long enough, you’ll eventually hear them talk about finding “the pocket”. Ask ten different musicians and you’ll get ten different definitions of what the pocket is. But we all know how it feels.

As a long-time drummer in rock and roll bands, I know when I’m in the pocket because the playing becomes effortless. The timing is spot on, the rhythm fits perfectly, the transitions happen naturally — and the rest of the band feels it, too. Each player finds his or her space, and the instruments come together perfectly.

A similar phenomenon occurs in sports. You may hear athletes talk about being in the “the zone”. Think of Michael Jordan moving effortlessly down the court or making free throws with his eyes closed. 

Bands and sports teams each have their own language. But, just as importantly, they often give each other unspoken cues. One of my favorites is “the nod”. You may have actually witnessed this at a live show but not realized it. When the drummer finds the pocket, another member of the band may turn around and give a little head nod. When I get that, I know I’ve found it.

Why all the fuss about “the pocket”? As a CIO, I’ve found the concept extraordinarily relevant. If IT leaders can find “the pocket” amidst all the disruption that can come at an enterprise IT organization, their chances for success are greatly enhanced.

In the last four years, we’ve had a pandemic, increasing and increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, greater regulatory and compliance oversight, rapidly evolving AI, and a changing work environment. Finding and staying in the pocket is more challenging — and also more important — than ever.  

Hitting All the Right Notes at the Right Time

So, what does being in the CIO pocket look like?

It used to be relatively simple: all systems were up and running, performance was good, IT was fully staffed, request backlogs were manageable, IT was at or under budget, the business was profitable — and maybe someone even gave you a head nod now and then.

But back then, we might not have had to pay as much attention to things like keeping policy, governance, and risk documents up to date. We may have only thought about business continuity and disaster recovery plans once a year or so. And security was the last thing tackled when bringing on a new system.

Now the situation is much different. There are many, rapidly evolving parts. Today, being in the pocket means that systems and environments are secure; data is appropriately and accurately classified, governed, and delivered; systems are multi-device enabled, easily accessible, highly integrated, and configurable; and the systems of third parties that the organization partners with are as secure, integrated, and available as their own.  


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Tips for Finding the Pocket

With the expectations for technology higher than ever, everything that used to work for IT must be challenged. Just as a drummer has to use all four limbs to create the rhythm and find the pocket, CIOs must coordinate multiple efforts, getting them all in sync, in order to deliver what the organization needs to remain viable, profitable, and sustainable.

IT leaders need to hire the right people with the right skills and a willingness to learn — professionals who have not only technical skills but also an intimate understanding of what the business needs to grow and remain relevant. They need to foster an organizational culture that promotes trust and collaboration. They need to put in place a governance structure and management processes that align with business strategy and culture and are compliant. They must adopt a security-first mindset and approach as well as modular architecture with easy-to- replace components. And they need to build collaborative partnerships outside the organization.

When IT has found its pocket, each component is working optimally and in sync with the business. Systems are secure and threats never make it past the first line of defense; if they do, they are contained and quarantined with no business impact. Customer-facing systems can be adapted quickly with limited effort to meeting evolving customer experience demands. Each business unit recognizes its data as an asset, can access it, and has an ability to make decisions based on data in seamless conjunction with other parts of the business.

But that’s just a start because we’ve now entered the AI era. Some may see AI as a threat or an unknown — a disruption keeping them out of the pocket. But I am as excited about AI as I have been about anything in the last 20 years. Certainly, it has limitations and there will be bumps along the road, but AI will be essential in meeting many of the challenges we have today as we learn to leverage it, validate it, and use it as a tool. It will make us more efficient in doing the more mundane things we never had to spend as much time doing in the past, and it will enable us in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

Getting back to the topic of rock and roll, there’s a recent AI component to that as well. Back in 1969, there were reports that Paul McCartney had died three years earlier, and the Beatles had brought in an imposter to stand- in for him. That, of course, wasn’t the case. Fast forward to today, and we’re enjoying a new Beatles song, “Now and Then,’” featuring the real (but long deceased) John Lennon on vocals and piano. Whoever said, “rock and roll never dies” was right — thanks to AI, which helped the Beatles find the pocket again.

AI can help IT leaders find a new kind of pocket. I believe it may even help us get that nod we’re all seeking from the organizations that we serve.

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