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Editorial

What Does It Mean to Be a Digitally Savvy CIO?

7 minute read
Myles Suer avatar
If the entire executive team is digitally savvy — and that includes the CIO — it benefits employees and customers alike.

In the upcoming new book, "Future Ready," by Stephanie Woerner, Peter Weill and Ina Sebastian, they claim executive leadership teams need to become "digital savvy." In fact, the authors have found that where an entire executive team is digitally savvy, the company is further ahead than peers in their business transformation.

So where are CIOs in their journey to being digitally savvy?

What Does It Mean to Be a Digital Savvy?

The vanguard CIOs that I get to interact with weekly say digital savvy CIOs have many common qualities. These include:

  • Creates a startup mentality
  • Thinks like a digital native
  • Sees coming disruptive trends
  • Drives tech enabled business outcomes
  • Explains technology in terms business audiences understand
  • Understands customer needs and market directions
  • Builds the meaningful executive relationships to evolve their business model
  • Uses technology + data + customer experience to create competitive advantage
  • Employs automation to drive transformation
  • Builds a platform and ecosystem the future demands
  • Sponsors agile ways of working
  • Enables self service

Related Article: CIOs Examine the Inevitable Marriage of Customer and Employee Experience

Knowing How Tech Drives Customer Satisfaction

In today’s world, a CIO's knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep, with deeper knowledge required for topics like cloud, security and data. In order to be effective, Chief Digital Officer Jay Brodsky says, “I think I would boil it down to customer focus. CIOs used to be able to keep the lights on and keep their heads down. Digital-savvy means knowing how tech drives external customer satisfaction and staying focused on strategic goals. Without question, many CIOs are already here, but not all are agile or free enough to shift.”

Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe claims, unfortunately, “digital savvy CIOs are a distinct minority. Not every CIO even needs to be at the forefront of digital savviness. Understanding that the organizations are becoming tech platforms and that AI is an all-out arms race, however, is critical.”

Can Infrastructure CIOs Become Relevant to the Digital Conversation?

Everything starts with a good understanding of the industry served. The days of having no business knowledge or relevance are gone. New Zealand CIO Anthony McMahon claims that “while there is still a need for infrastructure, switches and the like, they have a part to play in supporting delivery, but they should not be setting the digital strategy.”

Given this legacy CIOs should do what CIO David Seidl suggests: “Listen to folks who are doing cool things. Get out of their niche and see what others are up to. They should learn from them. They should listen to their business and see what they are excited about. With this, they should figure out how to make things happen. I have talked to organizations that had infrastructure or internal- to IT-focused CIOs who did not understand why they were not succeeding or seen by the organization as partners. I have also talked to organizations that did not know why their innovative CIOs could not maintain the core IT functions. There is a whole discussion to be had about how you coach your board and C-Suite through where you want to be on the curve, where you are resourced to be, and if you have a stable enough foundation to do what you collectively want to do.”

Agreeing former CIO Isaac Sacolick says, “Technologists must embrace lifelong learning, especially CIOs. They need to spend time with customers, learn employee pain points, and become data-savvy. Effective CIOs today keep their organization running smoothly and take advantage of the lessons first movers are learning at the crest of the wave.” CIO Jim Russell says, “The reason is clear, modern organizations that survive need engagement across the C-Suite and enterprise in order to survive. This involves developing a mission and the business and customer acumen to see where conversations are necessary and to envision how things can come together.”

Brodsky is blunter when he says, “Inward-looking CIOs are relevant to the digital world only when they figure out how the back-office is relevant to customers and the organization's strategy.”

Hinchcliffe adds, “Being a good CIO is a hard career development journey these days. By the time an IT leader gets there, they are knowledge + skill sponges anyway. Make no mistake though, becoming an innovation-led CIO is not an easy transition.”

Related Article: CIOs: Time to Sense Transformational Needs, Create Agility

Education or Background Needed by Digitally-Aware CIOs

The goal should be to gain experience in a range of areas across both IT and the business. Some CIO even advocate for experience understanding the impact of poor decisions or badly-implemented changes. Hinchcliffe says, “In an ideal world a CIO should have a stint high up in a top technology firm. With this, it is critical to have proven experience influencing distributed change and innovation. This includes network leadership and finally 2-3 digital transformation efforts under their belt, with at least one success.”

Learning Opportunities

Holding out hope, Sacolick says, “Many CIO can become digitally savvy by hiring transformation leaders in data, analytics, app/agile/DevOps/low-code and UX, and then learning from them. With this, it is essential that they become out of the process a business-savvy, partner for creating a digital vision and ruthlessly prioritize to create organization focus needed to succeed.”

Is This a Moment for a CIO Change Out?

It is clearly relevant to ask whether this is a time for a change in CIOs or a new wave of CIOs. Research has shown that CIOs have been getting younger. Seidl says, “In my space, yes — but it's pandemic, great resignation and boomers retiring more than it is based on skill set by volume.” However, Sacolick suggests, “This has been a trend for 20 years now and counting. As long as technology and data are differentiators, boards/CEOs will demand a ton from CIOs.”

Clearly many organizations are not set up for digital right near or at the top of their organizations. This problem needs to be resolved. With this Brodsky says he thinks the change out “will happen naturally. We need a new title for long-term CIOs to graduate into: Executive Information Officer?”

Russell adds, “I have found the most successful CIO's bring layers of diversity. Education, culture and previous work areas can all create empathetic engagement. Keeping active in other pursuits is, also, a common trait. Almost always, they should be explorers with curiosity. The COVID disrupted world has accelerated the timeline for societal disruption that impacts organizations. In some cases, the best CIO for an organization will be new but they can be aided by others including the incumbent.”

Related Article: How Should Organizations Consider Risk After the COVID-19 Crisis?

What Capabilities Should a Digitally Savvy CIO Provide Their Organization?

CIO Sharon Pitt says, “A savvy CIO should provide a culture of innovation, attention to equity, a workspace of inclusion, organizational and individual accountability, professional development for team members, strategic goals and ways to assess those goals and paths past group think.” Adding on Russell says, “It boils down to the concept of agility. The speed of change has accelerated. SWOT's age quickly. Demonstrating, instilling and supporting the capacity to change ensures that organizations adapt to the next normal.”

In terms of critical go-forward concepts, Sacolick says, “CIOs need to drive agile ways of working, product management, citizen data and proactive data governance, low-code development and DevOps/ITSM. Without question, organizations are at the same starting point. CIOs should dial up/down based on business needs. The most important attributes CIOs should have are curiosity, forward thinking and the ability to speak tech in ordinary language.”

Parting Words: Becoming a Charismatic CIO

While the authors of "Future Ready" dig into the broader audiences' need to be digital savvy — CIOs as digital leaders need to be digitally savvy.

Everything should start with the CIO. They need to grok how to build the future with technology. And they need to be a charismatic leader that gets how to build the audience for the change the organization needs to survive.

About the author

Myles Suer

Myles Suer is the leading influencer of CIOs, according to Leadtail. He is the director of solutions marketing at Alation and also the facilitator of the #CIOChat.