CIOs, don't be a digital scapegoat

Enthusiasm for technology led change is admirable, but CEOs could be letting you take the wrap for change that is as much their responsibility, as yours

This is a warning to the CIO community. Chief Information Officers (CIO) could be made the scapegoats (again) of organisations that fail to digitally transform. Despite a new decade. Despite the success of many organisations to trade through the pandemic and the global lockdown heralded by Coronavirus, there is growing evidence that senior technology leaders will be at the end of the pointed finger when digital transformations fail to live up to expectations. 

Sadly this is nothing new, in the 12 years I have charted the CIO and CTO community, and led industry forums, there have been a series of high-level buck passes that certain "world leaders" would recognise as their daily methodology. From broadcasters to retailers via manufacturers and the travel sector, CIOs have carried the blame for major business breakdowns or missed technology opportunities. On occasion, the blame is correctly apportioned, and a CIO has been unable to deliver the goods. But time and time again, the collapse is deeper rooted than merely the technology in use, and the team carrying out the implementation. 

A study by executive search and interim management specialists Savannah Group makes insightful reading and cause for alarm for many in senior business technology leadership. The Annual Technology Leader Survey finds a belief gap between CEOs and CIOs, with the former exhibiting a loss of faith in their technology leaders, whilst CIOs find they have been tasked with a role that if questioned by advertising standards bodies would fall short of accuracy. Over 80% of CIOs in the survey report that their role is not closely aligned with the initial understanding of the remit given upon joining the business. These two differences of understanding and opinion are leading to digital transformation programmes disappointing the customer, team members and ultimately the shareholder. 

The Annual Technology Leader Survey will not be comfortable reading for many in business technology leadership. CIOs are at risk of being made the scapegoat, in my interpretation of the survey for two key reasons. Firstly, CIOs are being tasked with, and accepting, an inordinately high level of responsibility for the digital transformation of the business. Digital transformation, innovation, technology-led change, call it what you will, is an entire business programme of renewal. It is not the implementation and delivery of a tool from the IT department. Yet the Savannah Group report suggests that organisations are expecting the CIO and IT to completely transform the business, yet taking little responsibility for the outcome themselves - unless it is successful!

Why does this scenario exist? In my experience, CIOs and CTOs are on the whole passionate and enthusiastic people. They care for the organisation and its purpose, and their long-held interest in technology enables them to see how new processes or technologies can improve the margin, reduce cumbersome actions, delight a customer or increase success. That animation is infectious, and in many cases an absolute winner in the interview process. Perhaps it's dangerous too. A passionate CIO, bursting with ideas, can suddenly seem like the ideal person to not only digitally transform the business, but fix that sticky problem with the manufacturing plant in Germany, or the costly processes used in onboarding new customers. Before too long, the CIO is being given a few extra responsibilities. Over half of the CIOs in the Savannah Group study report their initial understanding of the role does not at all align with their actual responsibilities.  

So enthusiasm is good and possibly a strength that is becoming a weakness, as CIOs are hoodwinked into taking on the lion's share of digital transformation responsibility. If organisations are serious about digital transformation, then each and every member of the organisation; and especially the leadership team, has to take responsibility for that change; the second risk factor CIOs face. The study finds 65% of CIOs report business culture was the main inhibitor to change. A statistic few in the business technology community will be surprised by. Culture change is hard and will require the full involvement of all members of the leadership team and their staff; and culture change will only really stick if the way the organisation is measured changes, and reflects the process of change, and then the way the organisation operates in the future. Sales targets are not a key performance indicator (KPI) that enables a new culture to flourish. 

The study indicates that CIOs continue to struggle with stakeholder management and influencing skills, which in effect sets them up to become the scapegoat should a transformation not materialise. Legacy technologies and business processes continue to dog both the CIO and the transformation plans, nearly half of respondents said business processes were preventing transformation. 

So there is more to do, CIOs need to continue to improve certain skills and use the current economic crisis as an opportunity to really deal with those legacy processes and technologies. But there is also more to do for the entire organisation, if they are serious about digital transformation, then everyone has to get on board and take responsibility. You have been warned.