Creating digital roadmaps: CIOs play a key role

As organizations grapple with digital transformation, CIOs can provide unique help shaping and executing on digital plans
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Although leaders of established companies dread being disrupted – it's the "Kodak moment" no one wants – many still have not begun the critical process of defining a digital vision. They are looking over their shoulders to see if startups will disrupt their industry the way Uber disrupted taxis and Amazon disrupted retail. Of course, digital disruption is inevitable: We just don’t know when or how.

Research at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research has found that digital technologies (social, mobile, analytics, cloud, Internet of Things, cognitive computing, blockchain, and so on) are disruptive due to three powerful capabilities they offer businesses: unlimited connectivity, ubiquitous data, and massive automation. These three capabilities remove bottlenecks and hassles. They allow companies to do business the way they would like to do business rather than the way they have traditionally done business.

[ Want more background on digital transformation? See our digital transformation guide. ]

The challenge to existing businesses is to recognize what these three capabilities make possible and to start offering value propositions that improve customers’ lives — rather than waiting for startups to do so.

As the leader with responsibility for understanding the capabilities and limitations of information technologies, the CIO can play a pivotal role in constructing a digital roadmap. 

To leverage the capabilities of digital technologies in ways that deliver extraordinary customer value, established companies will go through major transformations. Those transformations will take time. And what makes them particularly tricky is that the future is uncertain, so they cannot target an end state. Instead, companies must transform to develop the agility to respond quickly to opportunities as they become available. 

Five steps to digital success

We have identified five steps companies should take to position themselves for digital success.

1. Strengthen your operational core. Digital is synonymous with seamlessness. This means that transaction processing and back-office processes must be automated and reliable. Management cannot spend time fixing what’s broken. You need to install disciplined business processes and efficient enterprise systems. And you need to keep improving them.

2. Experiment. You are not Steve Jobs, so odds are, you do not know what your customers want. You need to find out. Ask everyone in your company who interacts with customers what you can do to make your customers’ lives better. Stage innovation fairs; provide seed funding for small teams that want to test a new customer value propositions. And ask your customers themselves. Experiment with multiple ideas to see which ones take off. Expect that customers won’t always pay for what they like. You’ll figure out a longer-term plan.

Jeanne W. Ross is Director and Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School’s Center for Information Systems Research where she lectures, conducts research, and directs executive education courses on IT management practices.