Senior technology leaders have always had an important role to play in steering their organisation. After all, technology is a core business competency.

But the past five years witnessed a major transition in the role of the CIO, a transition that’s particularly pertinent for accidental CIOs – chief financial or operations officers, and other senior executives that exercise tech leadership.

Today, there is an incredibly strong interplay between an organisation’s approach to technology, and the shape and the future of that organisation. It means that CIOs are now in a much more critical role. In this article, we will take a look at how, thanks to digital transformation, CIOs are at the centre of a major shift in the way their organisation works.

CIOs as transformation leaders

The coronavirus crisis has added further fuel to the transformation of business as home working becomes the norm, supply chains are disrupted, and businesses are increasingly dependent on digital services. The role of the CIO is now far more pivotal to organisational success.

The assertion is supported by results from our 2020 CIO survey. 55% of CIOs surveyed by us said that they identified most with a transformational role, while just 11% of senior tech leaders suggested that they are in a functional role. Indeed, 34% of CIOs went so far as to say that they see themselves as business strategists.

Technology leaders and senior staff that act in a CIO role now play a key part in driving a company vision, acting as risk-takers that are willing to instigate and also manage the deep technology disruption that leads to lasting transformation. This is a major evolution in the role of the CIO.

Transformation that stalls: the why, and the risks

CIOs clearly self-identify as being at the centre of transformation. But sometimes transformation stalls – or never gets off the ground. Tech leaders are strongly placed to change that.

Most of the respondents (80%) we surveyed reported that digital transformation is in full swing at their organisation, and in many ways that matches our experience. According to Google Trends the search topic “digital transformation” has seen steady year on year increases that indicate we’re at least five years into the first wave of digital transformation.

The search trend for digital transformation continues to grow. It reflects the fact that digital transformation has no real end date. It also indicates that digital transformation is still new to some organisations. Indeed, 20% of tech leaders suggested that they are not seeing significant progress on digital transformation.

A lack of progress at some organisations is not surprising: digital transformation is complex, can be all encompassing, and consists of many moving parts. It requires a significant push to initiate – and ongoing momentum to persist. CIOs can find it challenging to make a case for transformation that convinces sceptical C-level colleagues and board members.

But organisations that delay digital transformation take a significant risk. Competitors that embrace transformation will enjoy a lower cost base, offer more innovative products and services, and may completely disrupt established business models. CIOs must get digital transformation moving.

How CIOs can kick start transformation and maintain momentum

Outlining the benefits of digital transformation may spark a start. But executives can remain resistant, even when CIOs motivate clear benefits such as revenue growth, higher customer retention, and business resilience.

Quick wins are a great way to kick-start digital transformation. CIOs should play on their central role and initiate transformation with smaller projects that demonstrate business value. Business leaders won’t ignore clear, measurable progress. Quick wins will open the door to a larger initiative.

Once a wider programme is established, CIOs must continue to drive momentum with a clear business vision, while instilling a culture of transformation across their organisation.

Indeed, a Boston Consulting Group study that examined forty digital transformation projects found that companies which emphasised culture throughout transformation programmes were five times more likely to achieve a breakthrough from their transformation efforts.

Organisational culture is not traditionally seen as the remit of a CIO, but today’s CIO will understand how important it is to drive a digital-first, transformational culture. Going forward, CIOs must offer strong leadership.

Digital transformation: what’s next for CIOs?

Unsurprisingly, in 2020, COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation projects. Digital can, after all, bridge the physical distancing constraints that is now commonplace. But several transformation trends were already underway, pre-COVID.

Hybrid cloud

Public cloud applications initially supported many aspects of digital transformation, but the public cloud is not always a good choice. Private cloud and on-premise cloud are alternatives that still introduce the transformational agility of cloud technology.

However, some technologies are constrained on-premise: cutting edge AI, for example, is far more accessible via the large cloud platforms. Leading CIOs will increasingly consider a hybrid cloud approach to enjoy the best features of each mode of cloud deployment.

Focus on speed of delivery

We also think that CIOs must emphasise speed. Yes, merely igniting digital transformation is challenging, but once on the road to transformation, pace matters. The rate of change in the digital age has accelerated beyond recognition, compounded by 2020’s unusual circumstances. Rapidly understanding risks and opportunities, and rapidly adapting, will be critical.

Continuous transformation

In a third trend, we think that many technology leaders will move into a phase of continuous transformation. At some companies, the first and most significant wave of transformation is complete, and CIOs will now move to continuous improvement. Steadily improving operations by constantly incorporating advances in technology.

It is digital transformation, after all

Over the decades companies have always had to adjust to changing circumstances, adopting new approaches to keep ahead of competitors. However, today’s wave of change is unequivocally driven by digital technology.

It is the technology-centric nature of change today that puts technology leaders in such a central role. CIOs and accidental CIOs should not shy away from embracing, supporting and driving transformation in their organisations.

Interested in reading more about the changing role of the CIO and how technology leaders can drive business change – and business success? Read our full 2020 CIO report here.


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