Alina Aronova is one of the many high-caliber IT Executives who will be facilitating group discussions at NCS Madison’s CIO & CISO Strategy Meeting on March 10, 2020 in Boston, MA.

Alina is the Senior Vice President of Technology Operations and Chief of Staff for Global Products at Cengage Learning. She will be leading a thought-provoking group discussion on  Developing an IT Innovation Culture Aligned with the Business Culture. Here is a preview of what she shared with us in a recent interview for her upcoming session.

“I believe that a CIO must take two big steps to drive innovation throughout an organization. First, they must align their corporate strategy to an innovation strategy. Second, they must invest in their people.”

When should an organization invest in an innovative program?

Organizations should be investing in innovation every day. It should be built into the DNA of how they think, plan, make decisions, and build strategy.

There will be times when an organization needs to dedicate more time and money towards innovation. This is when a change is needed. Building an innovative program is a smart investment when the expected outcome of the change will make a difference in efficiency, profits, offerings (products & services), growth, markets, etc.

This doesn’t mean that every program needs to be big or built to disrupt the markets. Innovative programs can be small and have lasting effects.


What do you feel are the potential risks of implementing new technologies and systems? The rewards?

In my opinion, the biggest risk of implementing new technologies and systems is investments vs return. Did the amount put into the investment yield the intended outcome? When I say “investment” I am not just talking about financial investment, however, that is very important. I am encompassing money, time, resources, and functionality.

The reward would be meeting or surpassing the intended return. Simply meeting your goal after a substantial investment in innovation is wonderful. However, we all want to surpass the intended return. This justifies the risk and leads towards wanting to continue a culture of innovation.


How can a CIO successfully drive innovation throughout the organization?

I believe that a CIO must take two big steps to drive innovation throughout an organization. First, they must align their corporate strategy to an innovation strategy. Second, they must invest in their people.

When aligning a corporate strategy to an innovation strategy there needs to be a short game and a long game at play. Develop a plan for “quick wins” that will help solve the demand for faster results and give teams successes to celebrate and learn from. In tandem with this “quick wins” strategy, there needs to be a plan on how this plays into a larger goal. Dedicating time and resources to research and test ideas will produce better long-term outcomes. Essentially, plan, plan, be O.K. with changing the plan as needed and continue to move forward.

Next, we all know that it is important to recruit and retain talented employees. But, simply having smart people does not immediately lead to innovation. You need to continue to grow your people’s skills and knowledge base. Continue to expose them to new ideas, skills, training opportunities etc.  Building new skills grows confidence, gives people new tools to use in their work, and naturally breeds more innovation. I believe investing in your people naturally leads to an innovation culture.


What systems and practices have you used in the past to measure ROI for a new investment? Are you using any now? If so, please describe.

The system or practice I use largely depends on what success I am measuring. If my intended goal was a financial success, then I would be working closely with finance to see what the financial returns were. If my intended goal was improving customer success then I would be looking for positive customer feedback, shorter incident response times, etc…

When it comes to internal innovation I am a believer in having a strong Program Management Office dedicated to helping teams meet their goals and then measuring these goals. Engineers, architects, and product professionals are all exceptionally talented people. They are all running at a goal and working hard to meet it. Having a PMO support person who is watching out for dependencies, identifying and mitigating risks, watching timelines all while measuring velocity, recording program health, and implementing and ensuring adherence to senior leadership strategy greatly improves the organization’s overall project performance.


What are the first steps a CIO must make to identify the steps necessary to align their staff and business to work together?

  1. Start backwards. What do you want your company to be? What is the overall success you are looking for? Once you know what this is you can create your organization’s mission statement. Everything you will be doing will be to reinforce that mission statement and meet your goal.
  2. In accordance with your mission statement, work with your leaders to create your short term and long term strategic goals.
  3. Communicate your mission and goals to the company. (This step should happen in a regular cadence as employees feel more included and empowered when they are keeping up to date with progress).
  4. Align the right teams to your strategy.
  5. Be open to change. If something is not working or a new/improved plan is presented, be open to change. Being too rigid can lead to failure.


What example(s) can you give of a successful IT Innovation program?

I currently work at Cengage, a higher education company turned EdTech organization. The challenge I was presented with 6 years ago was to help transform a textbook publishing company into a technology company. And not just a technology company, a cutting-edge technology company. Not an easy task.

In my time we have moved from having a 0 staffed technology group to over 500. We developed many commercial products, including an industry disruptor called Cengage Unlimited. (A first of its kind digital subscription service giving students access to everything in one place, for one flat rate). We redefined our customer support model to be “student first”. We push teams to be innovative and we invest in our people.


What is one thing you would like the attendees of your discussion group to leave knowing?

If you want to have a culture of innovation, invest in your people and pay attention to your culture.


Why have you decided to join us at the 2020 Boston CIO & CISO Strategy Meeting?

I want to learn from others, share what I can and always strive to be a better leader and innovator for my organization.


We have limited seats available for the CIO & CISO Strategy Meeting in Boston. If you are interested in participating in Alina Aronova’s discussion group or any of the other great discussion groups available register here: or contact Sam Hornbarger for more information.

Access Alina’s Interview from 2019