There can be few CIOs today who are not feeling under pressure to change the way they work. As digital transformation takes root inside inside even the most conservative of businesses CIOs have a choice – either step up and take it on or become a glorified facilities manager – at the beck and call of CDOs. Stepping up requires more than just a shift in responsibilities – it needs new skills and behaviours one of the most critical of which is communications. Traditionally the CIOs lines of communication have been pretty simple: Upwards to the board and outwards to the team. Now CIOs are increasingly finding that they communicate with the entire business – and beyond. This is posing some challenges. It is also not just a question of what you are saying but how you are saying it.

The sudden exposure is caused by the programmes run by CIOs. Digital transformation means CIOs now have responsibility for engagement and collaboration. CIOs are increasingly looking to outside marketing experts to help them deliver. B2B technology marketing agency Bright Innovation are at the sharp end of this trend. Increasingly their clients and projects are coming from CIOs and Heads of Transformation, not marketing teams.

“Over the last year or so we have seen a real shift in the types of people coming to us and asking for our services”, explains Zoe Merchant, founder and managing director of Bright Innovation ( ). “When we started three years ago all our clients were either in-house marketers or business owners.

“Now around 25% of our revenues are coming from projects from the CIO’s office. In many cases these are internal engagement projects – working with internal teams to get buy in and engagement from employees for programmes that are attached is some kind of digital transformation strategy.

“This can be as simple and providing content and comms around the roll-out of the collaboration platform or more complex – such as engaging people in innovation workshops to help bring out and develop ideas for the business, ” Merchant says.

The CIO’s responsibilities no longer start and end with the technology for large scale change programmes. Increasingly the responsibility for ensuring that the entire business embraces the change also falls within the CIO’s remit. Because technology, often in the form of digital platforms, is so intrinsic to any change programme it makes sense for the CIO to have ownership of the entire programme.

“We work with a range of companies from big conservative global engineering companies through to fast moving new retail startups and in each case we are having more contact with the CIO and his team than ever before. If they are not leading a programme they are heavily involved and very engaged in the programmes that are created to ensure employees, partners and customers are aware of, and engaged with, change,” Merchant says.

This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the CIO. A challenge because now there is a whole new raft of people that the CIO needs to engage with that is neither technical nor business leadership. In many cases these programmes require trying to bring about a change in culture – particular in older, more traditional enterprises.

Having empathy with the people you are communicating with is critical for success and that is difficult when, in many cases, they are spread across so many departments and so many geographies. You also have the generational issue – engaging successfully with millennials takes a different skill set to getting buy-in from a CEO.

This also represents a huge opportunity for CIOs. Suddenly you have access to, and the ability to influence, the whole company. CIOs now have the tools, technology and permission to engage and communicate with stakeholders from the far reaches of your organisation. This is a hugely valuable resource when it comes to harnessing and testing ideas. There is a huge opportunity to build support for the kinds of programmes that you want to do and to demonstrate the value of the role that you have and the work that you do.

So what does a CIO need to think about when considering his communications strategy?

  1. Understand your audience

“This might sound obvious but understanding the make up of your audience is critical. Any successful communication strategy makes use of a variety of different channels and strategies to maximise the effectiveness with different groups. The days of throwing everything on the intranet are long gone! Consider who your key stakeholders are and then think about the message that is most likely to resonate,” says Merchant.

  1. Consider your channels

“In our experience working with CIOs the default (understandably) tends to be technology based channels. These are certainly hugely valuable but I would argue that finding ambassadors on the ground is probably even more so. If you can find ‘lieutenants’ within different departments and geographies, they are worth their weight in gold. They don’t need to be technologists – in fact often it is better is they aren’t – but they need to be passionate about the kind of change you are advocating.”

  1. Find experts

 “Often the secret to success lies in finding the right people to do the things that you can’t and that is why we get brought on board. CIOs are realising the value of comms and marketing support and setting aside budget up front to make sure it is done properly.”

In the same way as CIOs are bringing in startups to help establish a culture of innovation, they also need to consider what other areas of support they need to establish themselves internally. I have written before about running IT as a business and CIOs need to think about it this way. They need sales to help get investment internally, HR to build talent and marketing to build awareness and drive adoption. 

For a long time CIOs have been among the hidden people within organisations because the requirement (and opportunity) for them to interact beyond the IT department has been limited. However, the importance of adapting businesses to the digital environment has brought technology to the fore and increased the visibility of the IT department substantially. It has also delivered the opportunity to show value, creativity and ideas and drive change forward.