Role of a CIO in Digital Transformation


A CIO plays a critical role in digital transformation and although she is not the only C-suite executive engaged in digital transformation initiatives, she is one of the most active and key leaders during the transformation. Granted that digital transformation is not just about the new technologies and using them, it is usually the IT department under the CIO's leadership which is responsible for evaluating, trying, deploying, maintaining, and supporting any new digital technologies in the organization. Thus, it is important to understand the role of a CIO in depth, for digital transformation.


The number above has trended similarly in 2020 and 2021 with CIOs leading the charge on most digital transformations. A CIO who wants to survive digital transformation in their company needs to have certain traits and characteristics. This section discusses some of those key characteristics that will make the CIO come out as a victor during and after the transformation. 


Offers technical leadership

As expected, one of the key roles of the CIO is to provide technical leadership. She is expected to have deep knowledge of the industry and typically comes with a breadth of technical experience. She and her team are expected to choose and try out new emerging technologies and assess the impact of those technologies on improving or building products, services, and customer experiences.  In today's age of innovation and experimentation, she and her team should be looked on as the authority within the organization on emerging and trending technologies (Cloud, IoT, Blockchain, 5G, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, et al.) and provide any required technical assistance in experimenting with them. A CIO can help orchestrate innovation and experimentation within the whole organization by providing technical resources and experts from her team.


Provides business leadership

A CIO not only needs to be a technical leader but also should have deep business understanding and acumen. Digital transformation can't just pivot around the IT unit's traditional cost savings mantra. It is about customer centricity, revenue generation, and competing in your market while innovating and experimenting for continuous improvements in products, services, and customer experiences. A good business leader in today's age understands the importance of agility and innovation to live up to the ever-high customer expectations. A CIO understands the business models and has a vision on how they will evolve because of the digital transformation initiatives within the organization. They have the data analytics and make data-driven, balanced, and prioritized decisions. Such profound business thinking, and practices will lead to organizations with evolved business models, revenue growth possibilities, and competitive advantages. 


Acts as the master of ceremonies

A CIO should be an exceptional communicator. She should be able to simplify complex technical scenarios and translate those into key business messages to her senior leadership team around business value, competitive analysis, business model evolution opportunities and revenue generation prospects. Along with communicating with senior leadership, she should be able to clearly articulate the vision and the strategy of the organization's digital transformation top down to make sure that she can influence all layers of the organization. This will help in getting buy-in from majority of the employees in various units of the organization. Such influence and employees’ understanding will lead to success of the transformation initiatives. Getting buy-in across all layers of her organization, her peers and their respective units will help the initiatives which span multiple units of an organization. 


Cultivates collaboration across the organization

A CIO should be a master collaborator who works across all units of the organization. Building partnerships and bridges across all units will help in overall success of initiatives spanning across multiple units in the organization. Close partnerships with the leads from all the units will be a must if the digital transformation is going to cover multiple parts of the organization. CIO's IT unit alone cannot be successful in the transformation efforts if there is dependency on other units in the organization. While they may have the deep technical expertise to understand how the technology works, they absolutely will need the subject matter experts from the related units to successfully execute on all transformation scenarios. This deep dependency on other units makes the CIO's role critical and essential in building partnerships and working closely with the leads from the other units. 


Takes care of the people

People are key to a successful digital transformation in any organization. A CIO should understand the impact of the transformation on her unit and other units in the organization. She should recognize how change brings in resistance, fears, and doubts in employees’ minds. She should clearly and succinctly communicate the goals and reasons for the transformation and help people in her and other units understand the impact of the transformation. She should carefully assess the impact of the transformation and make decisions on getting external consulting help (if needed), retraining, teams’ consolidation and hiring. In some cases, digital transformation may lead to job eliminations, but it will also at the same time create new jobs, roles, and opportunities. 


Provides executive sponsorship and oversight

CIO’s sponsorship and oversight during the execution phase of this transformation is critical to the overall success of the transformation journey. It is great to have a vision and strategy for your transformation but not paying attention to the execution phase of the transformation can lead to the overall failure of the transformation. Ideally, the CIO should be one of the executive sponsors or the main sponsor of the digital transformation initiatives.

She can nominate or assign a key person from her leadership team to have overall oversight and accountability for the initiatives. As the sponsor, the CIO should become an advocate of the initiatives and continue to help the people in the organization understand the digital transformation initiatives and their overall importance to the organization. It is important to make sure that the CIO and her team stay deeply engaged in budget, schedule, and resources discussions of the initiatives. She should remove any hurdles during the execution phase of the initiatives to make sure they are making progress and are going to deliver within budget and on time.


In summary, a CIO is critical not only in helping with understanding, assessing and implementing technologies but also in defining how these technologies are going to evolve the business model, transform internal employee and customers experiences, and possibly build new products and services leading to revenue growth and enhanced customer satisfaction.

By Fawad Khan

Keywords: Digital Transformation, Digital Disruption, Leadership

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