Digital Leadership interview #1 – Mark Toomey

This is the first interview in my Digital Leadership interview series. If you have any tips for anyone who you think I should interview please let me know at

Mark Toomey and I connected on Twitter when we both used the hashtag #DigitalLeadership. We have a lot in common and we both believe that organisations need to get digital thinking and practice into every corner of their organisation to future proof themselves. His publications include “Waltzing with the Elephant”, “The Director’s IT Compass” and “The Infonomics Letter”, which is published monthlyMark Toomey, IT Digital Leadership interview

Mark has agreed to be part of my interview series about Digital Leadership, so here we go:

Hi Mark, how are you today?
Hi Sofie. Today, I’m travel weary. I’ve been in beautiful Adelaide for meetings with business and IT leaders, focused on Digital Leadership. My day started at 05:00 and will end at about 21:00. I’m writing this as I sit in the airport awaiting my delayed flight home!

Can you tell me about your background?
At 58, I’m the elder of 9 children who were brought up in various classical Australian situations – on a vast cattle station, on a dairy farm, in pubs and in suburbia. I have two adult children, five step-children, one grandson and a granddaughter due soon. My partner Leonie and I live in the Dandenong Ranges, on the eastern fringe of Melbourne.

I’ve spent 37 years now in the IT industry, as a software developer and business solutions designer, then as a consultant (which included 2 years working in London) and then, for the past 13 years as an independent specialist and thought leader in governance of IT.

I was part of the team that developed the first standard for governance of IT – AS 8015 and subsequently became responsible for finalising the text of ISO 38500, which was evolved from the original Australian Standard.

What led you into working with leadership and particularly digital leadership?
When ISO 38500 was published, I made the choice to focus on communicating its messages on a global basis – not an easy task when there is no major corporation or professional association backing the effort.

A key message in ISO 38500 is the emphasis on driving use of IT from a business perspective, and business taking up its responsibility for both driving the agenda for use of IT and subsequent realisation of value.

Considering that the heart of the Digital Era is evolution and innovation in use of IT, ISO 38500 really is a critically important guide for leaders of organisations that must make the transition to being truly digital organisations.

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As I looked at the evolving landscape of the Digital Era, I realised that many of the companies which experience trouble do so because of weak top level leadership – even when the people at the coalface know very well what sort of digital transformation is required.

On the other hand, I have seen organisations undergo extraordinary transformation only because they had the most digital-savvy executives running the business.

You’ve been involved in international standards development and IT governance. How did you get involved in that?

It was a natural progression, in which fate played a part.  I had been advising boards on governance of IT since 2000, and was at a conference in 2003 when Standards Australia descried its new project to develop guidance on governance of IT for boards in the form of a standard.

The intriguing thing was that the committee formed to develop the standard had no business leaders and no representatives of company directors.  Being a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, I made enquiries and soon found myself in the role of Company Directors’ representative.

From there it was inevitable that I became involved in the international adoption. And I worked on the international committees from 2005 to 2012. I’m still involved, though for now as a background member of the Australian committee.

What does the standard help organisations with? Tell us some more about the standard.
ISO 38500 is 15 pages of very compact and high level guidance for directors and executives on how to direct and control the use of IT in an organisation.  Many people think that COBIT, ITIL etc are governance models – but they describe management process, and should correctly be called management frameworks.  When this is understood, the role of ISO 38500 becomes clear, and it helps the people at the top maintain control and oversight without ever needing to become involved in the detail.

To use ISO 38500 effectively demands deep thinking to understand how to apply its messages. To help managers, consultants and directors with that thinking, I wrote a substantial book that was published in August 2009.

The book is called “Waltzing with the Elephant” and is named so because IT really is the elephant in the boardroom, and the board must go beyond seeing the elephant – the board must learn to dance, in a very elegant and controlled way, with this elephant. I’m sure that many of your followers can identify one or two companies that have learned to waltz with the elephant, while we probably see many more where the board is still terrified of, or even totally denying the existence of the elephant.

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Of course, sadly, there are also companies like HMV, which have been trampled by the elephant – largely because they denied the elephant’s existence!

I’ve assessed many organisations against ISO 38500. Only two have legitimately demonstrated a level of performance that could be called acceptable. The gaps in some cases are extraordinary, and give very sound understanding as to why many organisations are struggling with their journey into the Digital Era. It’s simply not possible to even conceive, let alone deliver, major Digital Transformation, unless there is very sound capability in governance of IT.

What will happen to organisations if they are not thinking about the future and the impact digital has on them?
Well, we’ve seen what happened to HMV. There will be more like that. Some will die soon. Others will hang on for a long time, and their death throes will be excruciatingly painful – more so because we know that, with proper recognition of the changes happening around them, they all had time to re-invent themselves and maintain their long term viability – even if it meant a total change of business model and purpose!

How do you describe a digital leader?
I have a working definition for Digital Leadership: it is the capability of business leaders to identify and realise opportunity for business growth and value through effective, efficient and acceptable use of IT. So a Digital Leader is one who has developed and exercises the Digital Leadership capability. Digital Leaders:

  • seek technology enabled opportunity to reinvent the business
  • seek technology enabled opportunity to expand and disrupt markets
  • understand how customers, suppliers, competitors and regulators are using technology to advance their own interests
  • energise and focus their organisations on a new and evolving vision
  • do not need deep technology skill – just the ability to see the potential in technology
  • understand that success is not in technology delivery, but in technology enabled business transformation
  • organise, engage and focus their organisations for change
  • activate all resources for change.

If a business is struggling with their digital knowledge, they have no idea where to start and think it’s complicated. What tips would you give to them?
I’m working on that problem. I think that the ISO 38500 governance standard, my book and my Infonomics Letter can help. There is an increasing body of commentary in the marketplace, and there will be real growth in published insight over the next couple of years.

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But perhaps the easiest first thing to do is to form some small discussion groups in your organisation and set them to addressing a couple of key strategic questions, as I published late in 2012:

  • Which aspects of our strategy exploit advances in the capability, supply and use of information technology to give us a sustainable strategic advantage?
  • Which aspects of our strategy will be blindsided and rendered obsolete by our competitors’ innovative use of information technology?
  • What aspects of identified, foreseeable and unforseen supplier, customer and regulator use of information technology has influenced our strategy, and what other aspects could render our strategy impotent?
  • Do the CEO and executive management team fully comprehend the role that IT currently plays and the role that it will play in the future in our business market, and how have they demonstrated that comprehension in the strategic plan?
  • How does each element of our strategy for use of IT contribute to our current and future competitive advantage and business performance?
  • Which aspects of our current and proposed future use of IT are, or will be a competitive disadvantage, and why is this so?
  • Which organisations are building competitive advantage for themselves in our business space, and how are we responding to the threat they pose?

For a complete discussion of these questions, see the August/September 2012 edition of The Infonomics Letter at

What is your goal with your work in digital leadership?
I want to close the gap in top level digital leadership – first in Australia and then, perhaps, around the world. I want to help ordinary business leaders become extraordinary digital leaders. My immediate challenge is to work out how to deliver on this immense challenge.

Is there anything the readers can help you with? Connections?
Any and all suggestions are welcome. Sign up for The Infonomics Letter and follow the journey!

Thank you Mark for being part of this series!

You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter

Twitter: @DigitalLeaderAu