Digitally Transforming or Hardly Changing? Regardless, the spotlight is on

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Posting date: 18 September 2020

I spend every day speaking with Senior Technology Leaders about what they are seeing in their world. Not just about the market and what opportunities we have at the moment, more so the challenges they face on a day to day basis and how they are overcoming them. Sure this is a small part of a wider conversation but it is genuinely interesting to hear what’s happening. 

Recently there are 2 groups. The first is the group every CIO wants to be in; Technology Leaders who are having to digitally transform their business with the spotlight on every move they make to ‘make things happen’. The second is the group that no CIO wants to be in; lack of resources, board direction, or a business that has little desire to change. The challenges that come with the latter won’t be seen overnight but if you are in this group be prepared for business failure to be pointed in your direction (even though it’s not your fault).

If we think of the biggest challenges for CIOs in the past decade, they have mainly been centered around the business’ perception of the lack of delivery from IT. If I had a pound for every failed ERP implementation someone has told me about... Or the technology innovation that has seen the business be over taken by a competitor – ‘Why didn’t we have that idea’…and by ‘we’ they mean ‘you’. We know that the majority of these ‘failures’ are actually adoption or education in the business themselves, however this doesn’t stop the rhetoric.

In the 2019 Harvey Nash /KPMG CIO survey, we saw the influence for CIOs staring to wane. It was reported that there were fewer CIOs sitting on the board - dropping from 71% to 58% in 2 years as IT had been thrust into the hands of the business with almost two-thirds of organisations allowing business-managed IT investment requiring a new relationship between both parties. As the Harvey Nash / KPMG 2020 CIO survey is upon us, I will be paying close attention to the relationship between the CIO and the exec. Is the CIO on the same page as the CEO? Are CIOs feeling more like order takers than business innovators? It will be interesting to see.

As with everything there is a balance. With most CIOs I speak with, there has been investment into Technology as a whole, with the current environmental and economical challenges there has been little option for the business to not invest. New tools, money for business adoption, security investment, the move to cloud, and the people who can bring niche skills is all a positive. The challenge is that this is BAU. The investment is to keep the business operating, not ‘digitally transform’. I was speaking to a CIO this week who put it in the best way, “Digital Transformation is not implementing Zoom, it’s driving enough value to use technology to grow business performance and influence the customer”. The problem we have is that the expectation from the business is that this ‘Digital Transformation’ is seen as the CIOs responsibility if it fails, if successful all the credit is taken by the business!

This dynamic has been around for many years just not in a business transformation sense. Great CIOs and Technology Leaders are typically charismatic, engaging, technically able whilst strategy focused, passionate – great qualities to have. When interviewing someone of this calibre, it is natural to ‘over-sell’ the position. Phrases such as ‘Digital at the heart of the business’, words such as ‘transforming’, ‘innovating’, ‘enabling’. The half baked re-write of a legacy system that is faltering customer experience is left out of the conversation. Who can blame Technology Leaders for taking on fantastic opportunities, especially the big prize of ‘Business Transformation’? Therefore having all of these qualities is what every business wants but can lead to challenging times later down the line when the expectation is that you will do it all.

So how do we overcome this? Hone those non-IT skills is my advice. Become fantastic under pressure, coach (and manage upwards), sell the vision whilst also being realistic with key milestones, and have empathy for those who don’t ‘get it’. Stakeholder management and influencing should be top of the list for those in digital transformation focused businesses. They should also be at the top for those trying to ‘sell’ the transformation to the exec.

The spotlight really is on every Technology Leader at the moment and there is a need to continue to evolve skills to become the CIO of the now and the future. My feel is that this is the next step of technology leadership – something we will look back on that will be a step change for technology. 

Dan Manton, Associate Director, Harvey Nash

Dan specialises in Senior Appointments in IT across the UK. In this area he places CIO's, IT Director's, and top team roles across Architecture, Infrastructure, Applications, and Programmes. He has worked for Harvey Nash for 8 years and has delivered many high-profile assignments on both an interim and permanent basis. Sectors include Retail, Higher Education, Logistics & Supply Chain, and Financial Services.