© iStock/PeopleImages
© iStock/PeopleImages

CIOs need to push executives to commit to digital change and then support them throughout the journey, according to new research from Gartner.

Gartner's 2018 CEO survey showed that while 62% of executives have a management initiative or transformation programme to make their business more digital, their expectations for technology have changed as the difficulties, costs and realistic benefits have become clearer. [Also read: Digital transformation the career-defining issue for CEOs - CIOs challenged to help redefine business models]

Mark Raskino, a Gartner Fellow in the CEO and Digital Business Leadership research team, believes that CIOs can leverage this sentiment into encouraging executives to commit to digital business change.

"Chief executives need to really get a grip on long deep disciplined journeys for digital business change, and their CIOs need to help with that," he told CIO UK.

These journeys need to begin promptly, before a combination of a potential recession and declining faith in big tech makes it more challenging to attract support and investment.

Position of strength

Raskino believes that now is a good time for CIOs to make their voices heard, as the role has become more respected in recent years.

Gartner asked 460 business leaders from organisations with more than $50 million in annual revenue which C-suite roles were driving and which were blocking digital business change initiatives. CIOs came out as the top enabler.

"CIOs need to be confident about their own ability to help lead the rest of the leadership team and then go to talk to each and every one of them individually about what they understand digital to be," said Raskino.

The belief that only specialists are responsible for an organisation's technology has become outdated.

Digital developments have driven deep changes to products, services and business models, which means each member of the leadership team needs to get to grips with how it affects their roles.

"The CIO has to go around the whole top table asking themselves are my colleagues really as capable as they should be, and as confident as they should be for the digital journey ahead," said Raskino.

After establishing what they understand and need, CIOs can develop the appropriate support, training and peer mentoring to help them.

CIOs need to mix speed with tact

Raskino added that CIOs would need to be tactful if they are to ensure effective digital business change. IT has traditionally been viewed as serving a business support function, and the era of the agenda-setting technology leader remains still relatively new.

"It would be easy to be inelegant, a little bit clumsy in developing into that more assertive position," said Raskino. "They need to go in gently."

This is particularly important because many corporations have been stretched to the point that they need to restructure. Indeed, according to Gartner's survey of companies running at more than $50 million in annual revenue the average size of executive leadership teams has increased to more than 17.

"That's a complicated arrangement," said Raskino. "The biggest risk I think is that the CIO being unpractised historically at being that agenda setter and leader is just a little bit too clumsy."

The other big risk is that they leave it too late. Consumers are increasingly weighing the benefits of technologies against their risks to privacy, health and the future job market, which could cause support to decline among executives.

There is also the risk of a future economic downturn, which would make it harder for CIOs to attract financial commitment.

"If we don't commit now and get that group to commit to the long haul of deep digital change, the risk is that they'll start to slide away from it because it's not just fashionable," Raskino added.

Developing internal talent

Gartner's CEO survey also added further evidence that business leaders now prefer to build up technology talent in-house than outsource it.

[Also read: CIOs insourcing and increasing headcount to develop in-house capability to drive transformation, 2018 CIO 100 reveals]

CIOs can help them to build internal staff skills and devise a strategy to ensure that they continue to develop.

Raskino recommends that they become known as "an academy firm" renowned for developing talented people.

They should do this by establishing training and development programmes internal talent, and boosting engagement through hackathons that encourage staff to become actively involved with technology.

"I think that's the best position to be in, because a couple of years from now, if you're trying to get people off the marketplace you're going to really struggle," said Raskino.

"Having a bit too much won't be the issue because those digital skills will be absolutely critical to corporate groups."