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Business transformation means different things to different organisations; new business models for one company, new automated processes or customer-facing applications for another. Yet whatever the specifics or objectives, the digital-first, technology-led nature of so many of today’s initiatives places the focus on IT, and particularly on the CIO.

According to IDG’s 17th annual State of the CIO survey, 37% of global IT leaders are confident that their IT organisations can be an instrumental force in innovation, and in helping define the parts of the business that are ripe and ready for digital change. A further 22% see significant opportunity for to help accelerate digital transformation by identifying the right mix of emerging technologies.

The report suggests that more companies see IT leaders in a strategic advisor role, helping to proactively identify business needs and opportunities and make recommendations about technology and vendors.

This is something the CIO can work with while promoting transformation. Every organisation’s journey is different, and even the objectives might not be the same. Some are simply looking to optimise existing practices, while others want to reinvent the business to compete against disruptive new competitors. Much depends on the company’s size and industry, not to mention the CIO’s reporting lines; it’s harder to accelerate innovation in a large enterprise with a conservative culture, and harder still if that CIO doesn’t have the ear of the boardroom or CEO.

Yet this is one of the biggest ways in which a CIO can have an impact. Mark Raskino, a Gartner fellow in its CEO and Digital Business Leadership research team, told CIO UK that the CIO has a crucial role in managing expectations over digital transformation, and encourage executives to commit.

‘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.’

For Raskino, this means CIOs developing confidence in their own abilities as technology leaders and being able to talk to senior leaders about what they understand digital to be. Through this, they can evaluate how prepared each board member is for transformation. There are risks here, Raskino admits, the biggest being that ‘the CIO, being unpracticed historically at being an agenda setter and leader, is just a little too clumsy.’

However, it’s a critical part of getting the board to buy in. Sometimes this involves talking in the language the board understands. Richard Corbridge, former CIO of the Health Service Executive speaks of building ‘an enthusiasm for the art of the possible’ and ‘an understanding of what digital solutions can deliver.’ Here, Corbridge suggests, simple solutions can build enthusiasm, and collaborating on these can increase the degree of technology literacy and the overall enthusiasm for digital transformation.

Darryn Warner, CIO of Interserve, takes a similar tack, tracking transformation activities across the group and categorising them ‘into stories that can be easily understood by the boards.’ Warner also shares insights and ideas via different forms of media to help business leaders improve their understanding of technology’s potential.

Business transformation doesn’t happen just within IT – it happens when IT works closely with other teams. IDG’s State of the CIO report found that nearly three-quarters of CIOs are engaging more frequently in collaborative projects with shared oversight, particularly in industries like finance, manufacturing and tech. CIOs can help build a consensus around how IT projects are prioritised, and even help business units build their case for new technology. This is crucial work.

Ideally, this involves a positive cycle of feedback, where CIOs work with business units to understand their needs, their biggest wants and their worst pain-points, and then pinpoint the right technology to address them. This doesn’t have to be onerous or expensive. SaaS products and cloud platforms can bring tangible improvements for minimal investment. 

Transparency can also help. Too often IT is seen as a black hole cost centre, where business leaders can see the money going in but not where it goes or why.

When CIO Dawn Kirchner-King joined Armstrong World Industries, the global ceilings manufacturer, she convened stand-up meetings between IT and business leaders to make it clearer how their money was being spent, what on and where the benefits were. This in turn builds trust – and business transformation thrives on trust.

This, then, is the role of the CIO in transformation: the expert strategic advisor, the leader who cannot just explore opportunities for transformation, but push commitment at board level and buy-in from the teams below. It’s not just about managing the technology -- but leading its adoption from the front.