The CIO’s role in digital transformation: facilitator or leader?

The CIO’s role in digital transformation: facilitator or leader?

Traditionally, the chief information officer (CIO) role was about delivery, support and backend operations. In other words, their focus was on “keeping the lights on”, rather than innovation and business strategy. But as digital transformation continues to revolutionise just about every aspect of business, CIOs, as technology experts, are having to step to the forefront of their organisations in order to help them succeed.

But the very nature of digital transformation means that businesses are in unprecedented territory, and the precise function that CIOs now need to fulfill in their organisations is unclear. After all, those traditional responsibilities have not simply disappeared – CIOs still need to keep the lights on, while also helping to navigate their organisations through this age of technological upheaval.

As Lars Mathiesen of Nykredit put it: “Closer collaboration with the business and its management is going to become more important for IT in the future. We’ve got to get into the front office and we’ve got to get to the management team — inspiring the whole management group is going to be a vital role for CIOs in the future.”

So, with all these balls in air, exactly how involved should a CIO be in an organisation’s digital transformation efforts? Should they be proposing new initiatives and spearheading digital transformation projects? Or should they be supporting other department’s digital transformation efforts and helping to ensure operational excellence throughout the business?

In short, should they be digital transformation facilitators or leaders?

In today’s post, we explore the CIO’s role in digital transformation, and how CIOs can help their organisations reach new heights.

CIOs as digital transformation leaders

According to an article in CIO, becoming a change leader and assuming increased and broader responsibilities were the two biggest transformations in the CIO role.  As Tom Soderstrom, CTO of Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, “You have to deliver an operational, solid, and secure platform to your business. At the same time, you have to be a creative CIO who can transform the organisation, or effect what I call self-disruption, so the business can thrive. What we really need in CIOs is a more creative, strategic thinker who can transcend these boundaries.”

Many CIOs believe that this means taking a much stronger leadership role, and having more ownership over the innovation pipeline. In a survey by EY, more than 7 in 10 digital-ready CIOs (71%) strongly agreed that they were responsible for driving the adoption of disruptive technologies within their organisations — particularly in areas such as cloud, mobile and analytics — compared with 51% of CIOs generally.

And there is evidence that CIOs are indeed taking on such a role in their organisations. While IDC once claimed 60% of CIOs would be replaced by chief digital officers (CDOs) by 2020, these predictions now appear to be way off, with ZDNet reporting that 55% of 300 top-performing CIOs in global businesses also hold the CDO role.

An article in Deloitte’s CIO Insider suggests that CIOs seeking to lead digital agendas should heed the advice of General George S. Patton: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”. It states, “A proactive approach to digital leadership will likely be more successful than a reactive one. For CIOs, this likely requires developing the needed business leadership skills, being responsive to the needs of the business in choosing a digital leadership role, and developing an operations model that supports continual innovation and experimentation to gain and maintain competitive advantage.”

CIOs as digital transformation facilitators

There are others, however, who disagree that such a heavy burden should fall on the head of a CIO. Kirill Tatarinov, CEO of Citrix, for example, believes the most successful businesses today have CEOs championing digital transformation.

That’s not to say that CIOs don’t still play a critical role in driving digital transformation, with Tatarinov saying they now have the opportunity to be ‘business heroes’: “We see examples of the CIO essentially becoming the hero of the digital age, not only embracing the new but also connecting the old with the new and really enabling organisations to move forward.”

This is in part because CIOs have a unique perspective within the business, one which lends itself naturally to a facilitation role as opposed to a leadership one. As Cliff Tamplin, consultant and former VP of technology support and risk management at Hyatt Hotels Corporation said to The Enterprisers Project: “The CIO’s unique strength is that they can see across the organisation in ways that typically only the CEO would. IT touches everything, so the CIO needs to have relationships across the whole of the organisation so that they can facilitate the integration and get people to work together.”

And there’s of course the simple fact that there are limited hours in the day. A CIO can’t just shift their focus; rather, they need to encompass new responsibilities, like strategising and change management, within their existing ones. This necessitates a liberal dose of delegation. As Matt Glover, CIO and CISO of AMX, said: “If you focus on everything, of course, you’re exactly focused on nothing. In my organisation, I empower each key leader with a mission and a vision to achieve whatever it is I need them to achieve, but they have full and complete control and domain responsibility in that space. And I give them guiding principles to operate within. Once you’ve set your framework in place, put the right people in the right seats. If you inspire them to seek, they will destroy.”

CIOs as digital transformation facilitators and leaders

The truth is, CIOs can’t be just leaders, or facilitators; rather, they need to be a little bit of both, in order to be as effective as possible. While they are indeed in a position to leverage their technological expertise to lead innovative digital transformation projects, in order for digital transformation to be truly successful, cross-functional collaboration is also essential.

As Glover rightly said, “You have to have CIOs who have the wherewithal to see where a business-led IT effort might go. If you turn a blind eye because of a lack of knowledge in a particular space, then what happens is a detriment to the organisation as a whole. Without an impassioned CIO to help lead an effort, then it doesn’t become normalised. And without normalisation, you can’t get the efficiencies of scale. And you end up with a whole bunch of disparate technologies that are trying to play in the same space, so you just waste time, money, and company valuable treasure in that process.”

Tamplin agreed with this assertion, adding, “If the CIO isn’t co-ordinating all of these things, you end up with islands of information, and it’s anarchy. And that is very much the role of the CIO: to ensure consistency and integration across the enterprise.”

Interested in how other leading CIOs see their role in digital transformation? At CeBIT Australia 2018, some of the most inspiring CIOs in the region will share their knowledge, tips for success and future insights. Don’t miss out! Register for your pass today.

New Call-to-action