CIOs: Fight the fad of hiring CDOs for digital transformation

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Digital transformation is a hot topic in boardrooms. There is a widespread shift underway across enterprises to reshape themselves around digital technologies. The urgency for this change is coming from the top, but most companies still need to accelerate their pace of digital transformation. The question becomes who should lead this initiative.

Executives from marketing, IT and even customer experience are vying for the opportunity to lead their organization down the digital path and improve the value of the business. Even still, many companies believe they need to look outside the organization to hire a chief digital officer. The truth is, however, most companies already have a CDO and they just don’t know it. Companies that hire a CDO have a CIO who is either not doing their job of embracing transformation, or they are not being recognized for it.

CIOs with the right leadership skills are the perfect contenders to take on digital transformation. While digital transformation will never be about one person, the CIO has the purview to lead the collaborative effort. They are well placed to bring together silos, such as supply chain, marketing and IT, and to collectively deliver digital capabilities. However, only 35 percent of CIOs expect to lead their companies’ digital transformation effort.

CIOs won’t be handed this role on a platter. Quite the opposite; they’ll need to speak up and seize the position of digital transformation leader. For a few very progressive CIOs, this may come easy. But for some, it will require some rejiggering their approach to convince the rest of the C-suite that they are the right person for the job.

Making the case

CIOs do a lot more – and can do even more – than keep the lights on. You need to deliver this message loud and clear to the wider organization. Technology is an essential resource you leverage; it is not everything that you do. The problem is that too few people realize the primary role of the CIO is about more than IT infrastructure; it’s about creating a superior business model.

Companies that hire a CDO have a CIO who is either not doing their job of embracing transformation, or they're not being recognized for it.

Progressive CIOs break out of the traditional role, in which 80 percent of resources are spent running IT utility services, to instead dedicate the majority of resources to driving business innovation.

So how do you show the CEO that you are the progressive thinker with the skillset and drive needed to digitally transform the organization?

Shift your focus. Your CEO will find other sources for digital transformation if you do not demonstrate that you can meet operational requirements and incorporate innovation into your responsibilities. For many CIOs, meeting operational requirements holds them back from focusing on the expectations of their business counterparts. Of course, there are table stakes that CIOs must get to operationally first, so they are not continuously pulled back into pre-transformation priorities; automation and operational rigor can help on that front.

Prosecute your routine work and operational problems. If your IT department continues to fall into the maintenance and upkeep trap, which drains your resources, you have a problem. CIOs need to lead IT teams to root out their own manual, repeatable processes. All the routine, menial stuff that takes up valuable IT resources should be automated so that you and your staff can tackle work that requires creativity and imagination, and delivers business value.

Talk the talk. Most IT organizations struggle with talking in a language that speaks to business leaders. CIOs who are business model innovators, however, understand sales, marketing, customer journey, finance, product development, user experience et al. They seek to grasp why something needs to change, not just how. Moreover, they can translate how coupling emerging digital technologies with business goals can deliver value for the organization. This skill set is what separates digital transformation leaders from the rest. Show the C-suite that you know what drives the business, how business processes work, how it all fits together, and how to move the business forward.

Build your team. CIOs who lead digital transformation need to build a balanced team with technical and collaborative skills. Also, you may not have the organization equipped to handle digital transformation. While there are overlapping skillsets and the digital transformation team will fall under the same roof as IT, it will require a different mindset and perhaps new skillsets. A traditional CIO, for instance, likely would not hire a user experience team, but a CIO in charge of transformation would. Don’t overlook the opportunity to acquire digital skills from other areas of the business and nurture your internal talent across the organization. You will find people chomping at the bit to bring digital transformation to fruition if you give them the opportunity.

Think big. Incremental improvements won’t transform much. What CIOs need is breakthrough thinking and changes to behavior. It’s not enough to change process; CIOs must alter the culture so that everything becomes about speed, agility, and the customer. The collective beliefs of the organization need to transform. By thinking about these big picture items, you will change the way you lead and make decisions.

Create capabilities. Stop thinking and talking in projects. Instead, work with the business leaders to define the outcomes they are after and become their capability provider. Enabling future capabilities requires CIOs to understand what the business needs before it knows it needs it.

Digital transformation is not easy. It takes time and resources, and its impact is delivered in the long term. CIOs must have perseverance and passion to be great digital transformation leaders. Most importantly, CIOs need to demand the job and fight the current fad to hire CDOs. This transformation starts with you – the progressive CIO. Who better to lead your organization through digital disruption than someone who has been leading technology transformations for ages?

Chris Bedi joined ServiceNow in September 2015 and currently serves as ServiceNow’s CIO. Prior to joining ServiceNow, Bedi served as CIO of JDSU from August 2011 to March 2015 where he was responsible for IT, Facilities, and Indirect Procurement.


As a CDO, I have to respectfully disagree. Prior to becoming a CDO, I worked for a large digital business enablement firm, and there are many more aspects of digital transformation than just "playing the part". The survey reflected that only 35% of CIO's expect to lead their company's digital transformations. This might be due to the fact that CIO's have enough on their hands already, and it takes a unique mindset and background to be able to not only appreciate and understand (at a low level) the constant technological innovations occurring, but to also have the functional background to understand how they can/could affect current business models, processes and procedures of both your firm and your competitors. Being able to take advantage of innovation and disruption is key for relevancy and dominance, and I have not known a single CIO that has enough time to do it all well.
On top of all that, the focus on UX/CX adds another layer where the CDO plays a big role on an intraday basis, which is key to customer retention, relevancy and growth.
I think you are doing companies a disservice by pushing this agenda. CIO's that are entrenched are not automatically going to be taken seriously in the role of enacting digital transformation just because they decide to start playing the part.
Bringing in someone from the outside that has the right skills and experience is disruptive to the dominance of CIOs.
Disruption isn't always pretty, but in this case it is a necessity.