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How to be a digitally transformative CIO

Over the last couple of blogs I've been looking at a series of reports published by the Harvard Business Review as part of The Enterprisers Project, an online community set up to discuss the evolving role of CIOs and how they can maximise their impact on businesses faced with the need to successfully embrace the forces of digital disruption.

In particular, I've been looking at the three reports that proved most popular with readers. While these might focus on the role of the CIO and IT, what emerges strongly time and time again is that no matter how enlightened and effective the CIO is, unless the highest levels of the organisation understand the impacts and potential opportunities produced by digital disruption, nothing much will happen.

The second most popular Enterprisers Project report was Business Transformation and the CIO Role. Its conclusions are based on a survey of 329 members of the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council supplemented with 91 Harvard Business Review enewsletter subscribers. Almost half (44 percent) of respondents were part of an IT decision making team; 46 percent made recommendations but not the final IT decision, and 10 percent were the primary decision makers in their organisations.

The report identified "Innovation Accelerator" companies that are "significantly ahead of their competitors when it comes to IT innovation — including the extent to which they have successfully commercialised internal IT initiatives." And it identified "six key characteristics these Accelerator companies share that can help provide a roadmap for others seeking to transform their businesses."

Guess what characteristic topped the list. "It begins with a commitment from the CEO that is shared by the company’s cross-functional leadership." The report says: "CIOs at Accelerator companies are significantly more likely to play a strategic role in the business as a key player on the CEO’s growth team."

A strategic role for the CIO is to be expected, if there is a commitment to digital transformation from the CEO. But can the tail wag the dog? Can CIOs elevate themselves to the highest levels and turn their enterprises into accelerators in the absence of appropriate leadership?

The report suggests they can, and should. It concludes: "CIOs have a mandate to innovate. The ones who accelerate won’t wait for permission but will lead their organisations into what will likely be a very different, technology-driven future. They will be a key part of the CEO’s growth team, designing the open, agile and customer-engaged organisation that will create new value—and competitive advantage."

From the survey responses the report extracts some defining characteristics of these CIOs ('How the CIO spends his/her time'); of their IT departments ('Accelerators’ IT departments are far more capable' and 'Accelerators’ IT departments are on another level'); IT innovation tactics ('IT-driven business innovation tactics: a close-up') and of their companies' investment strategies ('How innovation accelerators will invest').

Unfortunately the report does not give any indication as to how, absent permission and leadership from the CEO, CIOs can 'lead their organisations into a very different future." That's covered in the the third most popular report, Why the Lean Start Up Changes Everything. It suggests CIOs should "Consider incorporating elements of the lean approach … in order to speed delivery of customer-driven innovation," noting that "Lean start-up practices aren't just for young tech ventures. Large companies such as GE and Intuit have begun to implement them."

These suggestions are all very useful but perhaps HBR really needs to come out with a report along the lines of "How to make you CEO and board grasp the dangers and inevitability of digital disruption and the urgency and importance of initiating digital transformation."