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During digital transformation, CIOs are the secret weapon

Organizations need to look toward CIOs again as they move forward with digital transformation. CIOs can help navigate the uncertainty of how the pandemic affects their business.

These are uncertain and sobering times for everyone in the workforce, but the moment is particularly stressful for chief information officers.

Even before COVID-19, organizations asked their CIOs to do more with less, and the pandemic has only exacerbated and added to the demand with financial difficulties and layoffs facing many organizations. The pandemic has forced businesses to reckon with employees working from home. Still, questions remain about whether teams can maintain their productivity 12 or 18 months from now should the world stay in a protracted lockdown.

Many companies made long-lasting announcements about how their teams will work moving forward, ranging from allowing teams to work from home indefinitely to permanently closing their physical offices. Others face immediate budget cuts and long-term uncertainty around their revenue streams.

The state of flux is increasing the uncertainty many CIOs and other company executives feel, and should serve as a wake-up call.

The problem in focus

On the surface, digital-focused companies should have been ideally situated for a prolonged period of working from home amid the pandemic. The reality is that despite the shift to digital in the last two-plus decades, the approach hasn't always been successful.

In recent years, many organizations have started to employ chief digital officers (CDOs), a sort of majordomo for all things digital. Many experts said the rise of the CDO meant the CIO had to evolve or otherwise face corporate irrelevance. These new officers were sometimes called "transformers in chief," but looking back with some years of context, it is clear they didn't always deliver.

According to McKinsey, 83% of all digital transformations fail, while 94% of all executives globally surveyed are unsatisfied with their firms' innovation performance. The problem is more acute when considering that a mere 12% of executives surveyed "strongly agree" their business leaders have the right mindsets to lead them forward.

That's because for too long, organizations have chased the "shiny object," hoping it would be a brass ring of sorts. They took chances on all kinds of solutions, rolled them out, then rolled them back when they didn't produce the intended results.

However, these organizations confused "new ideas" with "great ideas." They either forgot or didn't ensure that what they were chasing had a relevant business purpose that could help further their mission -- in other words, they forgot to ask, "why?"

The opportunity for CIOs to shine

In response to the pandemic, organizations have rolled out a series of software and technology suites in the name of productivity. One question nagging many organizations is, are their teams more productive, or are they just busy?

Concurrently, many organizations are looking to cut their costs, whether it be eliminating travel, training or reducing the head count. The danger is that in this desire to rein in costs, beneficial tools will be cast aside.

CIOs are not immune to that cost cutting, but they must juggle this mandate with the realities that their organizations need to stay connected and remain productive.

They must balance the reality of legacy systems with a desire to future-proof an organization, so it can be nimble enough to pivot as future demands dictate. But CIOs are grounded in reality, and their decades-long track record use of data and analytics to solve problems has led them to platforms that produce tangible results.

CIO success is organizational success

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to success, there is one commonality: A CIO's success translates into success for the entire organization.

According to research from Columbia University, an overwhelming majority of multinational companies (92%) are not growing sufficiently. The pandemic will do little to reverse that trend, and leaders will have to approach their businesses with new ideas to foster growth in the months and years ahead.

If there is a single lesson to emerge from the pandemic, it should be that it is time to break down the silos and move CIOs from the back of the room to a seat at the executive table. CIOs are rarely on the fast track to the C-suite, but it's time to change that and put them front and center, alongside their C-suite counterparts -- only then can organizations develop and deliver a holistic approach.

While chief digital officers have led a lot of the innovation efforts in recent years, it is becoming apparent through this pandemic that CIOs are the ones who hold and build a broader vision. It is the CIOs who are the enablers of solutions, platforms and strategies that can help teams succeed -- by navigating the challenges of today and planning for the ones of tomorrow.

Technology should no longer be tacked on to business. It should be a driver and enabler of success and revenue generation, and CIOs are uniquely positioned to reimagine how technology can -- and should -- be used to push businesses forward.

What we need at the moment is calm and certainty, and CIOs bring precisely that to the table.

About the author

Mark Zawacki is CEO, US and Canada, at CIONET, the leading community of senior digital and IT executives around the world. CIONET's unique peer-to-peer model opens new opportunities for today's CIO, CDO and CTO leaders and their organizations, enabling them to accelerate problem solving collaboratively and safely.

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