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A cartoon made the rounds a few months ago showing COVID-19 as a wrecking ball, crashing through a corporate digital transformation discussion in progress. While we in the U.S. are heading into a third wave of COVID-19, hopefully we have reached a point where we can conceive of digital transformation post COVID-19. And if the cartoon is in any way accurate, CEOs today are not reacting to digital the way Rita McGrath described in her April 2020 Harvard Business Review Article. At the time, McGrath wrote, "simply asking CEOs of traditional companies about digital would throw them into a panic. This is because they believe digital technologies and business models pose an existential threat to their way of doing business — and of course they’re right."

How Did Business Priorities Change Since COVID-19?

According to Hurwitz research analyst Dan Kirsch, “many organizations initially went back to historical behaviors at the beginning of the crisis and hoarded cash. Then roadmaps became compressed and the need to transform became acute.” CIOs shared similar stories to Kirsch's. For example, CIO Paige Francis suggested that “five years of digital strategy is now prioritized into less than three years with a heap help of increased laser-focus on security and compliance.”

For Former CIO Wayne Sadin, “CIOs are doing everything from before, they are just doing it 25% faster, from home. If you had a digital transformation strategy pre-COVID, you would have built an organizational culture that reacted faster to changes in markets, products, CX, and EX. In this case, you would have evolved relatively smoothly. Lacking such digital experience means you're scrambling faster today to get there.”

The pandemic didn't only surface differences between broader organizational capabilities. CTO Stephen diFilipo noted, “The pandemic surfaced disparities among employees’ ability to comprehend and adopt to the requirements of digital business capabilities.” This means leaders can only advance as far as their employees' capabilities allow them to. For this reason, digital maturity level and the quality of digital business initiatives are dependent on employees. Success is less about digital and more about workplace readiness for digital.

Related Article: CIO Priorities: IT Operations, Cybersecurity, Leading With Empathy

It's Time to Revisit Priorities

Following the initial scramble to respond to the pandemic and the adjustment period after, it's now time for businesses to take a step back and reassess their priorities moving forward. Former CIO Isaac Sacolick suggested “Most businesses need a top-down review of the markets they want to be in, customer needs, product and service offerings, and technology/data impacts. Many changes need to be made post-COVID, so it is best to start with customers and then consider your supply chain. The threat is that hybrid work will create a new digital divide between the valley's openness and Wall Street's traditional ways of doing business.”

CIO Deb Gildersleeve agreed, saying, “Most organizations need to really take a step back. This process should start by prioritizing agility, resiliency, and continuity. It’s no longer just about large-scale transformation. The world we operate in makes it impossible to ignore an organization's need to adapt to changing business condition. From getting employees the physical technology and tools to do their jobs when the pandemic hit to creating digital solutions that drive collaboration and productivity as we’re all approaching work differently, it's all completely changing how we think about digital technology.”

Getting specific, CIO David Sedil said, “I think life is much more interesting for CIOs. Staffing changes and the post COVID job change movement are driving more workflow and automation. There's broad acceptance now of hybrid and remote meetings and events. Organizations are learning their first round of COVID-19 lessons. I'm also seeing more attention paid to the human elements. Mental health, life balance, and personal choices are driving what we do and how we do it. Organizations are adjusting to these changes while trying to retain their core identity.”

How Have Priorities Changed Regarding EX and Remote Work?

Given that employee experience (EX) is receiving even greater attention, Seidl said, “institutional flexible and remote work policy change is a big part of the transformations taking place.” However, without question there is “pain in digital transformation added work for everyone, debates on priorities, conflict resolution on implementations, jockeying for bigger roles, failed experiments, to name a few," said Sacolick.

One thing has been made clear during the pandemic: a central office isn't required to be productive. CIO Jason James said we should acknowledge that as a starting point: “We have proven that productivity isn't tied to offices. This gives more options to protect the workforce in areas that may been in the past considered higher risk.” Clearly, the priority for EX has changed forever. Francis said “I am hearing loudly there has never been a higher priority placed on EX and simplifying remote work. I am, also, hearing resources are more limited than ever.” Meanwhile, Gildersleeve said, “the trend toward improving EX existed before we all went remote, but the pandemic made it even more important. Before we may have been able to work around the quirky, non-intuitive systems. They got in the way when everyone was remote. We need better employee experiences designed for remote workers. We, also, need onboarding experiences for new hires and tactics for retention with existing employees. Outside of digital technologies, leaders need to find ways to recreate the in-office culture and water-cooler chats that were lost in remote work.”

For Davis, “our organization went totally remote and now have moved more to hybrid with various areas debating more permanently remote. So, the evolving world of EX continues to change and remains a high business priority, as the saying goes time is money and poor EX wastes time and leads to employee dissatisfaction.”

Related Article: Upholding the Psychological Contract Through HR and IT Collaboration

Bring the Importance of Enabling Digital Business to the Forefront

CIOs are clear that CEOs need to move away from what Rita McGrath described in April 2020. Sacolick put it bluntly: “If organizations didn't pivot to digital business ways of working pre or during COVID, they probably aren't in business anymore.” To be fair, Francis is clear that the "pivot to remote work exposed real business gaps. However, there was no not being at the forefront when we all went remote.”

At the same time, approaches to planning matter as we exit COVID-19. DiFilipo worries that many organizations “are, as suggested by Marshall McLuhan looking at the present through a rear-view mirror.” They are marching backwards into the future.”

In "Creating the Corporate Future," strategic systems thinker Russell Ackoff defined different planning modalities. Many are backwards looking. Leaders need to be conscious of this potential as they move out of COVID-19.

Should CIOs Be a Lightning Rod for Digital Transformation?

While Francis said this will be business-dependent, I hope the lightning bolts are planted on a roadmap and shared broadly and with excitement. To that end, Sacolick shared some valuable advice for CIOs: “make sure there is a clear strategy, vision, and priorities when divining digital transformation 2.0. And this includes: 1) customer experience evolution; 2) hybrid work enablement; and 3) becoming data driven.” Part of achieving these ends, said Seidl, is CIOs being “champions and instigators of transformation. CIOs should support other organizations and help them spot digital opportunities. CIOs can help with visibility of things that work or might work from outside. In many cases, this can be as part of the C-Suite driving strategic change.”

Culturally, Sadin said, “make sure IT is the organizations first, best customer of the firm's product or at least its processes.” For this to work, Gildersleeve said CIOs should encourage and drive collaboration between IT and the rest of the business. "You have to work with those closest to the problems day in and day out. The pandemic didn't create the need for digital businesses and solutions, but it brought them to the forefront of the conversation and accelerated the activation of them for those who were behind. If you create an environment where people feel empowered to be creative, you’ll drive more innovation throughout the organization." At the same time, CIOs need to implement agile technologies that truly empower others to create their own digital solutions and be an agent of change without sacrificing security or governance.

Guidance for New CIOs

CIOs had many suggestions for new CIOs looking to establish a compelling digital transformation agenda.

  1. Know your business.
  2. Understand its business strategy and its key initiatives.
  3. Understand how your businesses needs to change because of the crisis.
  4. Build an influencer team to assist you in moving agenda forward.
  5. Draft a plan and build buy-in and consensus.
  6. Remember the digital transformation agenda isn't yours. It's set by boards of directors and CEO with your input and thought leadership.
  7. Get out of the technology and immerse in the business: what do customers say? Who are the market disrupters that could impact your business?
  8. Map your solutions to each component of the business strategy.
  9. Focus on the business’ customer and how the company needs to grow to meet this customers’ needs.
  10. Solve for the points of friction in your business and how transforming processes and enabling technology can remove that friction.

Sacolick suggested the end is “finding a transformational calling--something that will truly change the business and with this focus on investments, people, and innovation in that area. Too many digital transformations become the bucket of what everyone wants rather than what the business needs.”

CIOs: Seize the Moment 

COVID-19 transformed many things. It brought the digital agenda to the top and accelerated the timetable for delivery. CIOs need to shift gears, as my friend Paige Francis said. CIOs have achieved a renewed importance because of the crisis. The only question is how many will seize the day and lead their organizations forwards versus backwards?