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The evolution of the CIO:

How to drive company growth through digital transformation

A CIO in 2018 stands at one end of a high-wire. At the other are the goals defined by the leadership’s business strategy. To walk this tightrope and achieve exceptional value in the minds of the Board and the customer, the CIO must artfully balance the technical and the innovative. That means taking care of the operational aspects of IT that are fundamental to the running of the company while leading from the front through ambitious new initiatives and activities.

'Today, the CIO role depends on hybrid skills, including a mix of technology, business and political capability. If you get it right, the CIO role is amongst the most exciting, rewarding and influential in the organisation. But get it wrong, and your tenure will be painful and short-lived. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted!'

Jos Creese, Digital Advisor, consultant, researcher and trouble shooter

It’s not an easy balancing act – 73 percent of CIOs say they find it challenging – but by using the right approach to digital transformation, it can be done.

How the expectations for CIOs have shifted

‘IT's role in every company is now becoming more elevated. We're not only being asked to run the business – keep the aircraft carrier moving, if you will – but also proactively and securely launch new aircraft. [We need to] be able to define what the new mission is, bring back the details, the reconnaissance, the analytics, and do it quickly and securely. So IT is at the heart of every mission and every company.’

Guillermo Diaz, CIO & SVP, Cisco

This description is a reality most CIOs in 2018 recognise, with nine in 10 saying their role is becoming more digital and innovation focused. However, only one-third of organisations currently have an enterprise-wide digital strategy, which means many CIOs are just beginning their digital transformation journey.


Careful planning can reduce complexity

Before rushing into the deployment of potentially complex IT solutions, it’s a good idea to think carefully at the outset about the goals of your digital transformation.

‘Leaders in the business will develop ideas about what the company needs to do to transform. The CIO should be in these conversations advising how technology can enable or disrupt those ideas. To ensure the business learns quickly if the ideas are working, the success metrics need to be agreed and the way to produce those metrics designed and built into the systems before they get launched.

It’s a bit like running a science experiment at school. You have a hypothesis, think about what you’ll measure to prove it, do the experiment and then see if the results back-up your hypothesis. If you build the metrics in from the start you can iterate quickly if things aren’t working. If you don’t think about the metrics up front you’re running blind.’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco

The challenge for CIOs is to help develop success metrics that will be relevant for the long-term future, as your priorities shift from mostly operational concerns to a greater focus on digital business transformation. 

‘We see quite a lot of CIOs doing projects to improve productivity; some trying to differentiate; and a much smaller number who are actively looking to radically disrupt their market through digital transformation.

It’s important to do the foundational work to drive some costs out, and you don’t want everything to be in the higher risk category of defining new business models. Ideally, you find a balance between the three types – that’s the art of being an effective CIO.’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco

As digital business transformation becomes a more important part of your role, it’s likely that your success metrics will also need to target how IT’s role in your business can improve customer experience.


CIOs need a customer experience focus

More than half of CIOs say that enhancing customer experience is a key business issue their Board is looking for IT to address. This ambition would once have fallen more to outward-facing teams such as marketing and customer support than IT, but now that technology infuses almost every aspect of the enterprise, the IT department’s end-to-end oversight of customer data means it’s ideally positioned to add value through new digital solutions.

It’s by no means the CIO’s sole responsibility to use digital transformation to improve the customer experience. Collaboration with a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) can have a profound impact. Organisations with a CDO in a dedicated or acting role are over twice as likely to have a clear and pervasive digital strategy than those without one. The influence of a CDO and input from stakeholders in other departments can help cater the digital strategy to a customer base that is increasingly discerning, or even demanding, in the speed and quality of the product it expects.

‘Customers are changing how they choose to buy products and services, how they pay for them and how they receive support for them. It’s now necessary to think how a digital transformation will affect customers across the entire product or service lifecycle.’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco


Using the right talent to power digital change

The skills needed to enact an effective digital transformation extend beyond C-suite executives, but talent gaps in tech teams aren’t always easy to fill. As the role of IT in enterprises has developed, the skills shortage has grown. Two-thirds of CIOs report that their IT strategies are being held back by a lack of skills. If you’re bringing agile innovation into your IT department, one solution is to empower all of your teams to innovate using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

CIOs should also anticipate needing to hire, train and develop different types of talent depending on what stage of the digital transformation they're in.

‘Cisco’s skills analysis showed that in the early days of our digital transformation, teams would identify specific technical skills that were in short supply, such as cloud skills or Python programming. As we moved through the transformation, a different gap emerged for people with business acumen. We’ve learned this evolution in talent requirements has been experienced by other organisations, too.’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco

Collaboration and problem-solving are particularly useful soft skills to have in digital teams, and with analytics playing an ever greater part of strategy, the ability to give an engaging presentation that’s meaningful across departments is a bonus.

Having the skills to get the job done is vital, but equipping team members with the right collaboration tools is now an essential tactic as well.


Encouraging a creative, experimental and open culture

To ensure your digital transformation efforts succeed, think about whether the attitudes and efforts of your employees are aligned with the business vision. That means fostering a culture in which your workforce can collaborate virtually, flexibly and productively. Aside from reducing costs and increasing productivity, making your company a great place to work through innovative digital solutions helps attract and retain the best talent, which further fuels transformation and growth. CIOs, along with other business leaders, will play a key role in overcoming any internal objections to digital transformation.

Take Del Brenta, an Italian-based fashion manufacturer, for example. Through leadership from the Head of Innovation, Stefano Bezzon, Del Brenta has transformed its business by adopting Cisco’s collaboration solutions across its entire supply chain.

After mapping its production process, Del Brenta realised that a large amount of time was being spent on communication and the travel required for in-person design meetings with clients. The team now uses Cisco WebEx to directly connect everyone in the company, from accounting to sales to logistics. A 5-hour drive has now been replaced by a 10-minute video conference call and, through real-time cross-team collaboration, the error rate of manufacturing moulds has been reduced from 10 percent to 1 percent.

Most fundamentally, the introduction and enthusiastic adoption of Cisco’s cutting-edge collaboration solutions has infused the team with a sense of personal accountability and collective creativity it didn’t have before.

‘The most important thing in digital transformation is curiosity. You have to encourage a workplace culture in which everyone is curious about technology, and find ways to let people be curious about your new solutions. Listen closely to them and try to avoid falling in love with the technology or partner. Instead, focus completely on what your company needs to change so it can work better. Try to find solutions that can be used in every room by every person.’

Stefano Bezzon, Head of Innovation, Del Brenta


Dealing with the challenges of digital transformation

The challenges involved in digital transformation tend to scale with the ambition of the technology you’re introducing as well as the new skills and processes it requires to work. When the right solution is chosen for the right challenge, such as in the case of Del Brenta, the transition to digital could be seamless, with few to no issues to speak of.

‘When we introduced Cisco’s collaboration tools, we used a bottom-up approach. We simply asked everyone to install the apps on their phones and computers, then experiment and ask questions on anything they didn’t understand. Our team is relatively small compared to other companies and the new tech is extremely intuitive, so we didn’t face any significant challenges when making the digital transition.’

Stefano Bezzon, Head of Innovation, Del Brenta

In companies that are bigger, with hundreds or even thousands of employees, introducing new platforms enterprise-wide can be more challenging. For example, security is an even higher priority today than in the past, not least because of how devastating data breaches can be to customer confidence and company performance.

‘To keep on top of security challenges when spreading digital transformation through the company as a whole, the education of users is important. At Cisco, we use dummy phishing campaigns to insecure links through internal emails. If they’re clicked, the user is directed to training on how to spot threats.’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco


Assessing the value of your digital transformation

Digital business transformation is a team sport. It’s not typically the CIO alone who decides what the definition of value is to the business, but it is their responsibility to use their systems and data to help the business better understand if value is being delivered. It’s also in a CIO’s best interest to stay engaged with business leaders so that the team they’ve helped shape remains the primary IT supplier. After all, as CIO, you know the how the existing systems work and can integrate with the rest of the business to ensure you’re pulling in the same direction and making incremental progress towards a well-balanced, enterprise-wide digital strategy.

‘Business leaders who are technologists tend to be fairly pragmatic. They know things can’t always work with 100 percent reliability and therefore there will be some imperfections, especially when you’re pushing the envelope with rapid innovations. It’s how you respond to those challenges that defines how competent you are and whether you have a justified seat at the table to have the important strategic conversations.’

Colin Seward, CIO for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, Cisco