It is Now time for the Digital CIO

A practical guide on preparing CIO’s and their organisations to meet and exceed the demands of Digital Transformation

There is no disputing that we’ve arrived at an era of hyper-disruption. No industry, country or organization is above the risk of disruption by digital technologies in some way or form. This may come from traditional competitors choosing to deploy new, digital technologies and achieving competitive advantage through massive gains in internal efficiencies (digitization). Beyond that, there’s always the threat of the spirited, funky, unknown, start-up that redefines the industry by innovative use of digital technologies (digitalization). Somewhere in between is that parallel universe of established brands investing in applying innovation into areas allied to their traditional business creating diversified revenues and potential disruptions as well. What a truly awesome time to be a life servant of technology!

CIO’s all over the world have been hammered through this period though. The creators and guardians of traditional (boring) technology inherited the image of the technology they’d deployed and protected. CIO was rapidly translating into “Career Is Over” as the shiny, agile, digital age was pursued. Chief Digital Officers (CDO’s) and even Chief Data Officers were punted as the more appropriate role to embrace this new age and CMO’s grabbed a healthy chunk of the budget. However, happening equally rapidly was the realization that the “shiny stuff” needs the “traditional stuff” in order for business value to be created.

We constantly read reports on the reducing rate of appointment of CDO’s. All projections on the popularity of the CDO role have needed to be downgraded. It is now evident that whilst these discussions and debates continue, it is the CIO that is charged with executing Digital prorities. So, what’s made these CIO’s special and why have they been charged with such responsibility? It is our view that these executives have transitioned into being Digital CIO’s.

There is no longer relevance in a digital strategy — only strategy in a digital world. Therefore, there can only be CIO’s in a digital world — the era of the Digital CIO (D-CIO) has arrived.

So, what then is a D-CIO? For us, this is a CIO that has stilled the relentless noise that often surrounds the provision of basic services and who has earned more than their seat at the strategy table … they’ve earned the right to disrupt !

Every, of the many, CIO’s that I’ve worked with aspire to this status. It is the ultimate form of recognition and career nirvana to be trusted by the business in this way. It is a conscious transition though and there are more than a few actions every CIO can and should be taking to get closer to being the D-CIO.

Figure 1 : Earning the Right to Disrupt

Operational Reliability: Irrespective of whether you’re a veteran CIO or a newbie, you simply must make sure that the basic technology services work and work well. Don’t be the CIO who sleeps with their phone on — just in case the Chairman has an issue with email during his overseas trip! Partner, outsource, virtualize or do whatever else is needed … but do not open yourself to being told to get the WiFi working before you worry about launching a Blockchain PoC! Business will only listen once the noise of persistent burning platforms have subsided.

Service Excellence: IT projects are notorious for so many reasons. This is not about waving a magic wand over these issues. The transition that is required is about listening to business, co-creating solutions and then executing with business. A consistent criticism over the years has been the distance between IT and business. Our projects are were this is most felt. I’ve seen IT Project Managers and Architects turn into heartless autocrats in the face of changing business demands. The ability to execute with business is a key step to being seen as a partner and not the proverbial “blocker”. This will lay the basis to earn the permission to disrupt and there are many ways of accomplishing the desired outcome. Supplier partnerships are key in this process. The Digital CIO will actively build an effective ecosystem of suppliers/strategic partners/industry peers/co-opetition to deliver business value and not just projects. Just as importantly — speaking the language of business will create the biggest impact. Report in terms of business KPI’s and cultivate your team vocabulary to speak in terms of the business strategy contribution their efforts make. Cultivating a culture of seeing and managing business as a customer is the ultimate end-state. The result will be both being trusted to execute solutions the business requests and also to co-create solutions based on business challenges.

Right to Disrupt — from wherever it comes: This is the most difficult of the transitions a CIO will need to make as it is both an emotional and tactical set. Emotionally, CIO’s will need to accept that they are no longer the sole custodians or source of technological ideas and solutions. These could (and should) be encouraged from all parts of the business and supported in line with being able to “execute impeccably”… the D-CIO is both a supporter and enabler of disruption.

Tactically, the D-CIO will proactively identify technologies and solutions that could be harnessed to expedite the attainment of business priorities. Bring the disruption to business — rather than explaining why you’re “not ready” for it. Creating strategic partnerships is always a key area for the D-CIO as this is often the best way to deal with limited budgets.

Even with all of these great steps being taken and perfectly deployed, the D-CIO remains a corporate executive and will also need to prepare for corporate battle in the most appropriate and relevant manner. In the (new) CIO transition work that I’ve done, I’ve seen that this often boils down to 3 key dimensions:

Figure 2: D-CIO Key Dimensions for Success
  1. The right People: You cannot do battle with an ill equipped army. Whilst new or incoming CIO’s typically inherit their teams this dimension also remains key for established CIO’s wanting to transition to being a D-CIO. You simply must review the leadership team that surrounds you for at least three things: capability — can they do the job, capacity — are they focused and well supported and compatibility — can you work with and trust them. Watching your back with your own team is possibly the worst application of executive time! Once you have your team, make sure that they are each empowered to act, cultivating right culture of value delivery and putting your customer (internal + external) first.

2. The right Partners: The digital world demands speed and agility in everything we do. There is a need to continuously and rapidly understand new technologies, suppliers, brands and business models. This rate of demand will not decrease. It is also accepted that most corporate IT organisations operate at a cadence appropriate to their core tasks and centred on enterprise solutions. In a world that is increasingly favouring the small and nimble, the D-CIO needs to be innovative on how strategic partnerships can yield the desired benefits of speed and agility — particularly w.r.t new solutions. A diverse and co-ordinated partnership eco-system could well become the ultimate risk mitigation to any Digital transformation.

3. The right Promoters: The greatest wars have been won through alliances. Irrespective of your tenure as a CIO, you will need to identify and harness key executive relationships (which may even extend beyond your organization) who will act promoters of your successes — you don’t want to be your own PR machine. Incoming CIO’s tend to make the error of strengthening relationships with the executive that sponsored their admission … you will need and must build promoters. This will prove to be a key channel to demonstrate the value that will earn the rights to disrupt.

4. The right Priorities: You need to own and execute the battle plan — not clean the guns. Every CIO I’ve worked with is generally touching issues that range from super operational to potentially business transformative. Making sure that your energy is being applied to the areas of greatest impact is a fine balancing act — especially when the basic services are not working and / or the right people are not executing for you. Bottom line — you need a clear personal plan to guide your path to being a D-CIO. This is not your IT deployment plan — this is a personal roadmap that aides in prioritization and ensuring that your effort is appropriately expended. I consider this a critical enabler for personal success.

In my opinion, all CIO’s must transition to being Digital CIO’s. This is needed in order to remain relevant as well as to make the business and personal impact every CIO yearns for. The transition is possible and has been done. The opportunity has never been greater than it is right now.

Best of luck with your journey and I hope you have great fun along the way!

A self-confessed life servant of IT. A serial Tech Entrepreneur, Strategic Advisor to CIO’s and Institutional Mentor to ICT SMME’s and Startups