Research Director Gartner
The digital revolution is here, and it is inviting many new forms of business innovation and competitive differentiation. Thanks to digital, CIOs have an unprecedented opportunity to transform themselves, and their departments, and become a key voice at the executive table and boardroom.
Digital business is a fast-moving team sport
However, the leadership role the CIO must play in digital business is contextual and depends on more than self-initiative. Digital business is a fast-moving team sport, and it requires role clarity and synchronization to succeed. One of the first acts of leadership a CIO can contribute to the enterprise is to drive digital role clarity and teamwork expectations.
Business executives and the board of directors are responding to digital business challenges and opportunities in different ways based on their industry, competitive position, capabilities, personnel and many other factors. Some have asked their CIO to lead digital transformation. Others have added the chief digital officer (CDO), chief innovation officer (CIO) and other executive roles. Still others have put the responsibility for digital innovation on the shoulders of the individual business units and departments without much regard as to how the innovation will be supported, integrated, secured and industrialized.
Finally, and probably most predominantly, is the case where little definitive direction regarding digital business is provided, and there is a lack of clarity regarding leadership roles, responsibilities and required teamwork.
CIOs must wade extra mile for the digital drive
No matter the situation, or whether enterprise leaders make the offer explicit, the CIO has a significant leadership role to play in the development and long-term maturation of enterprise digital business capability. As the head of IT, CIOs must communicate a vision that excites and mobilizes the IT organization, helping the staff understand that the status quo is not an option. They must challenge themselves, and their IT staff, to develop business acumen and become more digitally savvy. CIOs must lead by example in shifting investment priorities to digital and developing a culture that can support the change required in people, process and technology.
CIOs need to lead the effort in developing a digital engine with a scope of people, process and technology that is capable of supporting digital business innovation. This includes ensuring secure data access to back-office systems, industrializing new front-office applications, leading the campaign on digital risk, and ensuring that, between IT staff and partners, they are able to contribute to digital business innovation.
Digital CIOs will have the largest impact on the enterprise
CIOs that drive digital business innovation in addition to supporting digital business operations will have the largest impact on the enterprise. As a business leader, digital CIOs will have to develop a strategic vision of how digital technology will transform the business and know how to implement it. In general, CIOs begin driving digital business innovation on a project-by-project basis once they have gained credibility in supporting digital business efforts. If this evolves into a more pervasive enterprise leadership role for digital innovation, then CIOs will have to delegate many of its operational IT functions to other IT leaders, so they can focus on front-office innovation in collaboration with business leaders.
They must be cautious of taking on too much too fast
Afforded the opportunity, aggressively minded CIOs may leap at the opportunity to lead the charge in championing digital business innovation. However, they must be cautious of taking on too much too fast, without maturing supporting digital capabilities. A highly capable IT leadership team can provide the CIO the opportunity to delegate running the business IT and IT core renovation to other IT executives - for example, IT chief operating officer (COO) or chief technology officer (CTO) - so that CIOs can focus their energy on facilitating digital business innovation.
The bond of CIO, CDO, and CMO is imperative
Given that creating a high-performing digital enterprise will require leadership from a critical mass of business executives, the CIO's early challenge will be business leader engagement, regardless of who is driving the digital agenda. If the enterprise has a chief data officer (CDO), or some role outside IT to drive the digital agenda, then the CIO will own the responsibility for supporting digital business innovation. The CIO should create a strong partnership with the CDO to enrol all executive management and the board as digital leaders.
Ultimately, the role the CIO plays will depend on several factors. If the business was born digital or has significant technical capability already embedded, there may be less of a need for the CIO to drive digital innovation as much as support it. On the other hand, if the business is not widely adept at leveraging digital technology, then the CIO is often asked to drive as well as support digital business innovation.
The soft skill imperatives –communication, collaboration
Other factors include the current credibility of the IT department and the level of business engagement, business acumen and experience in deploying digital technologies the CIO possesses. In addition, soft skills, including communication, collaboration and change management, will be important. The vision the CIO has of digital business for the enterprise, and the ability to engage business leaders in this discussion, will play a crucial part in determining the role the CIO will play.
John MacDorman is a research director in Gartner's CIO Research group. His areas of coverage include IT strategy, organization design, bimodal IT and governance.