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CIO finds storytelling challenging but crucial

Clint Boulton | May 10, 2017
AstraZeneca’s CIO grapples with narrative constructs to explain technology concepts to business executives at the pharmaceutical company.

Creating alignment between IT and the business has been a goal for CIOs since they began viewing themselves more as business partners than tech dudes connecting cables in data centers. But getting business buy-in to innovation -- a path more littered with the bones of failed projects than the riches of success -- can be a tough sell. And Smoley says it's tough to find the right balance of technical explanations with narrative building to convince the business that potential initiative is worthwhile.

Crafting a narrative presents its own chicken-and-egg challenge. "A lot of really good technologists can't communicate worth a hoot or put a presentation together to save their lives, so you end up in this challenging spot where you might have the right story but you can't tell it well," Smoley says. "Or you've got no story but great technology information and you have to sort through all of that to get it right."

Moreover, Smoley finds himself explaining how the tools fit into the context of AstraZeneca's business to people who have varying degrees of understanding about technology. His audience includes AstraZeneca's CFO, head of HR and the executive vice president of discovery science. "It's a highly federated company so you have to bring it together in a way that gets people to get their head around it and decide priorities going forward," says Smoley, who adds that partnering with innovative vendors is crucial in helping to weave the story together and present it to business leaders.

In May, Smoley's team is presenting on social collaboration technologies such as Facebook at Work and Slack as potential alternatives to software from That application, Chatter, works fine for CRM (customer relationship management) scenarios but is untenable for other business functions, he says. Staff briefings for the remainder of 2017 will cover genomics, next-generation user interfaces, internet of things and wearable computers, digital therapeutics and mobile health, cybersecurity and blockchain and automation, robots and chatbots.


Innovation crapshoot

Smoley enjoys the work but acknowledges trying to engage with this business over disruptive technologies presents a different challenge. Normal IT tends to be programmatic and linear, whereas innovation is something of an awkward crapshoot. "It requires a totally different skill set than the typical IT shop because a lot of what you're doing is your consulting and gathering information both in and outside the company in a short period of time," Smoley says

Smoley knows somethings about traditional IT, having just completed a sweeping transformation he initiated in 2013 to bolster IT while cutting IT costs in half. Smoley flipped the model from 70 percent outsourced and 30 percent insourced, and retired some legacy applications in favor of cloud software from Box,, Workday, Microsoft (Office 365) and ServiceNow. In the next leg of this journey, AstraZeneca is leveraging computational horsepower from Amazon Web Services to crunch large data sets, part of a major genetics push. Smoley is also building a mobile software platform to automate and tailor paper-based business processes for smartphone and tablets.


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