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The pressure is on today’s CIO to deliver the foundations for the digital business, bringing devices, apps and services together to drive the enterprise forward in pursuit of its business goals. Forward-thinking companies are looking to their IT leaders to accelerate their digital transformation and provide the tools that power new operational and business models and new products and services. IDG’s 2018 Digital Business Survey found that 89% of organisations have adopted or plan to adopt a digital-first business strategy, with 45% still at the R&D stage and 44% already working on execution, integration and digital maintenance.

Yet developing a successful digital strategy is far from easy. IDG’s recent survey for Box and Okta found that those shifting to a digital business faced significant challenges. These include technological issues, including legacy systems and software or unreliable networks, but also concerns around whether senior management teams lacked vision and simply couldn’t see the need for improvements; 47% of respondents considered this a barrier to progress. Lack of adoption from employees and a need for employee training also struck a chord. In key capabilities, like the ability to share valuable business content, IT leaders also struggle with complicated, time-consuming sign-on processes and a lack of advanced security, governance and compliance capabilities – all barriers associated with managing existing, legacy environments.

To make things harder still, support from across the business isn’t always there. A recent Deloitte survey on the Global CIO shows that 42% of companies either had no digital strategy or a limited one. Within those organisations, only 40% of CIOs are leading their organisation’s digital strategy, and only just over a quarter (27%) are leading its execution.

This makes not just developing but realising a digital strategy something of an art, and as with any art there’s more than one approach. In their interactions with clients, analysts at Gartner isolated three: having no formal digital strategy, tackling change instead on an ad-hoc basis, having separate IT and business strategies, or having a single business strategy with IT embedded. In the second scenario, CIOs need to work closely with the business leadership, enabling technology to inform the business strategy. In the third, IT is more closely embedded in the business strategy and will be involved in shaping its long-term direction, but there are pitfalls in terms of speed of response to new technology-focused opportunities.

In any of the three, operational excellence and credibility are paramount – nothing hurts a digital strategy more than poor delivery of core IT services – and the strategy needs continual development through a continuous, iterative process; a challenge when many CIOs get so mired in operations that the wider strategy often takes a back seat.

Digital strategy meets business strategy

Increasingly more voices promote a closer integration between IT and business strategy. For instance, Sunil Gupta, co-chair of the executive program in Driving Digital Strategy at Harvard Business School, has suggested that businesses need to avoid treating digital as separate from overall strategy, and instead establish a business-wide, digital-first mentality. This involves starting with the question – what business are we in? – then looking at the scope of the business in a way that focuses less on products and services, and more on the needs of the customer, building new business capabilities to meet them if need be.

A 2017 workshop organised by the World Economic Forum suggested that business leaders needed to understand their point of departure, the direction their industry was headed in and the role their company should play in its digital future, before articulating the next steps forward. If the future seems unclear, then businesses can take direction by asking questions like ‘what are the most hated parts of your industry, and how could they be disrupted?’ and ‘how could someone take out 50% of the costs in your industry using digital technologies?’

Answering these questions means going beyond IT services and functions and working closely with business teams and leaders, getting to grips with their pain points and the challenges and opportunities that face the business. By defining technological objectives with business objectives, you not only ensure that technology and business strategies align, but that the digital strategy will get support both from senior business leaders and the workers who will drive or frustrate its adoption.

This approach has been adopted in many successful digital strategies. At the Met Office, CIO Charles Ewen has linked his technology strategy directly to the overall corporate strategy, using his deep understanding of the organisation and its requirements to establish how technology can enhance the customer experience and inform corporate objectives. At Arsenal FC, IT Director Hywel Sloman has one-on-one meetings with the C-Suite and heads of department, enabling him to understand their needs and shape IT solutions that can meet them. 

Working with the business, then, is crucial, and a digital strategy can mean going beyond technology to involve wider organisational change, breaking down structures and promoting cross-team collaboration to establish new workflows, processes and best-of-breed tools. However, technology can play a crucial role in getting past the starting obstacles. Too many organisations end up with a disparate mass of apps and services, restricting the flow of business content and insight in a way that frustrates rather than accelerates the digital business. Bringing the best together in a single, secure platform with streamlined authentication can help the wider digital strategy take root, and enable all parts of the business to see the benefits as they come into play. In an area where success breeds success, laying down firm foundations for digital change is a great first move.

For more information on this topic watch the webcast from Box & Otka