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Disruptive business: A CIO’s role in effective digital transformation & cultural reinvention.


Digital business is quickly becoming a reality for every CIO and organisation. But digital transformation doesn’t happen by accident. Each organisations path to a new operating model is unique. Successful transformations may use the same building blocks, but they require vision, creativity and commitment.

As a CIO, the role requires you to be more agile and quick to react; assisting with the delivery of great customer experience, taking advantage of new technology to cut costs, improving quality and transparency, and building value.

The problem is, that while companies and CEOs know what they want to achieve, results often fall short because one-off initiatives in separate units that fail to have a big enterprise-wide impact with adoption of the improved methods almost invariably yield disappointing results. Programs that provide temporary gains are not sustainable.

Decisions that matter:

From the onset, a digital transformation project requires big, bold company wide commitment during a period of uncertainty, especially if you wish to reinvent a business rather than simply improve an existing one. Without a transformation of the core, lifeblood elements of a business – the value proposition, people, processes and technologies – is likely to be a short-term fix.

A digital reinvention requires bold decisions and trade-offs, but not thoughtlessness. Knowing how to prioritise decisions and how to implement them can make the difference between a successful transformation project and one that struggles. Something that occurs across four phases:

  • Discovering business ambition based on where the value is migrating
  • Designing a transformation project that leads to profitable customer journeys
  • Delivering change through partners
  • De-risking the transformation process to maximize the chances of success

Each of these areas is full of crucial business decisions, not only for the CIO, but for the company as a whole.

Setting the business ambition:

No decision is more important than deciding the direction that a business should go in. Analytical data, and a disciplined thought framework, can provide a helpful structure for making decisions and should not be ignored. It’s important that this analysis be dynamic, forward-thinking, and based on an understanding of how digital technology can lead to future business changes.

The need for this analysis is matched in importance by a requirement for imaginative thinking. C.S. Lewis once called imagination “the organ of meaning” and in this instance, it’s key to providing a healthy life. A creative leap is often needed to identify how a business will continue to serve new and existing customers and clients throughout the transformation process, and across the whole journey.

Creating a digital transformation plan:

A project of this size must be headed by a clear leader. However, driving the digital charge requires teamwork. Like the conductor of an orchestra, the leader (CEO, CIO or other) provides vision and ongoing direction. But a group of senior leaders are needed to drive the day-to-day effort in specific areas. While it will be important to have people who are visionary and inspiring, the team will also need respected executives with a deep understanding of the mechanics of the business, as well as expertise in change management.

Any change effort requires active communication of the vision and an explanation of why it’s necessary. It’s crucial to decide when to communicate and with whom. Focus should first be on winning over influencers both inside and outside the company. This means delivering crisp and clear tailored messages to each affected audience, from the board of directors to new starters.

Delivering and executing transformation:

A key driver within digital transformation is resource allocation. This doesn’t just mean simply ensuring resources make it to the right place at the right time. There needs to be a decision about the allocation process and the speed at which it should operate. Succeeding with a digital transformation project requires the leadership team to follow the whole process closely, acting quickly to pull the plug on areas or increasing investment in others. I’d recommend that, in order to succeed with a digital transformation project. Budgets for legacy operations should be cut and budgeting should shift from annual to quarterly or monthly cycles.

What to do and when:

According to recent McKinsey & Company research, 70% of transformation projects fail. To avoid becoming another disappointing statistic, think carefully about how to sequence your transformation for quick-wins to yield revenue that can be reinvested. To do this, you need to establish clear criteria to evaluate the potential payoff of various parts of the transformation initiative. These should include a strict assessment of projected benefits, the time needed to capture them, dependencies, investments required, and impact on the overall transformation journey.

Thrive, don’t just survive

During the digital transformation process, CIOs have the opportunity to pave the way for new business streams and methodologies, due to the expansion of new technologies. However, this leads to them being required to proactively deliver and demonstrate results. Many CIOs find themselves under increasing pressure as they lack the necessary skills and competencies to thrive in their new role.

But if they can demonstrate the right skills and traits, they can elevate themselves and the business collectively. Read on to find out my top five:

Strategic thinking:

To lead a transformation project, a ‘digital ready’ CIO must be able to think strategically about how the incoming technology will transform the business, and also how to implement it. They must have a powerful sense of how and where digital can transform product development or sales and marketing, and how it can open up new lines of revenue. Having the ability to show how technology can support the business on its journey is key, as is acting as a visionary and creative thinker rather than a follower.

A desire for innovation:

CIOs must be driven by a desire to inspire innovation, both at a business model level and in terms of new products and services. They must be open to exploring new ideas, and also exploring how they can be implemented within the business. As they show where and how digital can be used to innovate aspects of the business, innovation becomes part of what is expected of them. The ability to analyse existing business processes can add key value to any business.

A focus on driving growth:

A key characteristic of a digital ready CIO is the desire to look toward the front of a business, identifying how technology can help drive growth and alter how a company markets itself and its products. The ability to work closely with the front office on identifying tools to grow sales is valuable, as is being able to forge strong relationships with marketing teams. Modern CIOs need to be true partners with both sales and marketing teams, forming a relationship and bond that allows for customer insight to impact new systems and processes that improve experiences.

Clear vision and communicating skills:

The ability to craft a compelling story about how technology can transform the business is vital. Digital changes the way many businesses work, opening up new possibilities, but people have to buy into this vision, and understand how it might benefit them. CIOs need to become master storytellers. Not with the aim of selling some magic beans, but rather in creating an exciting narrative that the rest of the business can buy into. Communication is a vital part of any CIO’s role, and one where many acknowledge the need for improvement. But the ability to craft a tale of how the business might look and work after a digital transformation further intensifies this need.

Confidence and bravery:

Getting ahead in life, as well as in work, often requires a willingness to take calculated risks, something that is particularly true for CIOs. They need to be brave and confident enough to gamble on emerging technologies and processes. This also involves a willingness to risk the prospect of failure, and an understanding that not all digital projects will deliver as initially hoped.

Because of this, CIOs need to be willing to experiment widely to identify the best future opportunities. They need to be able to recognise that their value comes from enabling other elements of a business.

To embark on a successful digital transformation journey, businesses need to overcome multiple internal and external challenges including securing data, nurturing an adaptive culture, and developing a strong change management program to sustain momentum. Within this, the CIO fulfils a crucial leadership role in ensuring that at a time when a business rarely has more at stake. As the forces of disruptive change continue to grow, the business leaders of tomorrow are setting their sights on ensuring they have the best model and team in place to get them there.

Widgets Magazine
About Mike Altendorf 7 Articles
Mike was the founder of Conchango, one of the UK’s most successful digital consultancies and systems integrators. Mike has many years of experience in consulting services and technology, founding Conchango in 1991 and building it into a £45m+ revenue business before it’s sale in April 2008.
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