Usman Waheed: “Business Is Tech. Tech Is Business.”

For chief information and technology officer Usman Waheed, tech is a way to achieve a larger vision

“We agree on a common goal. It’s not just IT. It’s business,” Usman Waheed says. The chief information and technology officer for Knoll sees collaboration and business transformation as his central task and uses a tactic he calls, “three in a box” to ask his company’s tech department, business department, and vendor partners to achieve business transformation goals. “We have a single vision. We assess risk and priorities as a transformation team to develop and achieve our collective goals.”

Usman Waheed Knoll
Usman Waheed, KnollPhoto: Little Nest Portraits

Knoll is a design and architecture firm that specializes in workplace solutions. Founded in 1934 with a mandate to embrace modernity, the company brought Waheed on in November 2016 to continue its evolution and maintain a clear path to the best technology and business transformation practices.

To achieve best tech, Waheed seeks engagement with the entire company. Tech, he explains, can only perform optimally if IT understands the business. In laying the road to success, he calls meetings with customers, sales teams, vendor providers, and, of course, tech. He also utilizes technology effectively to create excellence in business process and data management.

Developing such systems and relationships is nothing new to Waheed. His career launched as a management consultant and, in that position, he worked with several Fortune 500 companies on their global business transformation initiatives. When he decided it was time to shift to a corporate role, he took on the task of transforming Iron Mountain to a REIT in forty-five countries, enabling global shared services, and supporting Recall acquisition among several other global acquisitions. Through all this work, Waheed embraces the idea of change.

Of his scope at Knoll, he says, “This is a global role. We are razor focused on the customer experience and providing a personalized experience to each client. We leverage applications and infrastructure economies of scale.”

People have taken notice of Waheed’s ability to deliver. In 2019, after a rigorous vetting process, seasoned business leaders sent him home with the prestigious Global CIO of the Year ORBIE award.

How should a CIO evolve?

“When I was a child I was taught that the only constant is change. Moving to the US for school at age 17, I arrived ready to embrace change. As a CIO you must never fear change. When you focus only on tech you fail to truly transform an organization. Tech is something you consider and integrate while thinking about the whole organization.”

Previous to the award, in 2019, Knoll went live with its multiphase business transformation which includes finance, procurement, order management suite, and a dealer portal. Beyond bringing together various departments, Waheed has to unify legacy systems and onboard new talent.

He has a good mix of legacy and new talent working together to modernize and deliver business systems. Waheed works to make sure the old guard supports the new and that recent onboards appreciate insights from foundational people and tech.

To build a team mentality, Waheed says he prioritizes culture first and sees tech as a tool for business success. “The biggest confusion in the industry is that tech should be considered as an enabler,” he explains. “Tech is business. Artificial intelligence and other tools should be an output. Technology teams should focus on identifying new opportunities working closely with business partners and identifying problems to solve rather than the tool you want to use.” Business transformation can be achieved when there is alignment between business and IT on both short and long term goals.

Waheed has always been interested in bringing leaders together that make an organization. He advises other in tech to “focus on relationship building and change management and business alignment.”

He also cautions that one can only successfully promote a culture shift when leadership clearly articulates and explains it. “Time is not taken to explain how disruption will help their lives,” he says of a common pitfall. “It’s about ensuring that the vision and direction is shared with all,” he reiterates.

“Focus on the problem to solve rather than the tool you want to use.”

To get to this shared vision, Waheed offers a few key tactics. First, though he admits it may seem basic, Waheed puts a great deal of effort into making sure people understand not just what, but also why and when. He also understands that financial incentives and rewards for putting energy into change can boost engagement. Beyond financial incentive, Waheed says they celebrate success and milestones, and he works to help his team understand the future through focusing on customer experience.

The ongoing “why” questions that Waheed asks reveal needs of customers. Clearer understanding means no business disruptions, improved business metrics, and supportive feedback from customers. Waheed continues to move Knoll toward all these markers of success with his dedicated team and a network of partners.

His job, he says, means making sure the right talent and skill sets are available and, of course, importantly, committed. Business and IT strategy alignment remains his constant goal. “Business is tech,” Waheed says. “Tech is business.”