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Digital transformation: It’s not the CIO's job

By , Head of Sales at Altron Karabina
Africa , South Africa , 02 Sep 2021
James Hickman, Chief Customer Officer at Altron Karabina.
James Hickman, Chief Customer Officer at Altron Karabina.

If the CEO turns to the CIO and says digital transformation is your job, you will get modernisation of IT systems or digitisation of IT systems, but you won’t necessarily get digital transformation.

When an entity or organisation makes digital transformation the CIO's job, it is doing it incorrectly. The CIO is a contributor towards digital transformation, but unless there is a strategic business decision made to go down the road of digital transformation it will never be fully successful.

Implementing a new technology is not digital transformation. Digital transformation includes transformation, at a technology level, which is the CIO’s role, but it is only done in the context of a much broader shift where a business is changing its operating model in a way that uses technology that’s never been done or never been done in that organisation before.

For example, a South African medical aid company realising that COVID-19 is affecting so many people that aren’t going to the gym because the gyms are closed that they then brought an online trainer to the fore, who has now become the personal online trainer for millions of South Africans.

This is a great example of digital transformation where a company shifted a business model, using technology to have a positive impact on customers.

This might seem like a boring example, but it is a clear indication that it was not a CIO decision. This was a decision that came from the marketing department or higher up. The CIO had to make sure that the tech was there, yes, and to make sure that the online training could be recorded and stored somewhere so that clients who wanted or wants to, are able to access it. That was the CIO's job.

The CIO did not run to marketing and say ‘hey, let’s do an online gym programme’.

In the words of Tony Willis, Technology Head at Altron Karabina: “Digital Transformation does not actually exist if the goal is in fact Digital ‘Business’ Transformation. The word ‘Business’ is often omitted from the phrase, but should always be kept in mind. Digital Transformation is not about technology for technology’s sake, but technology as a key enabler for transforming how we do business into the future.”

When we talk about Digital Transformation, it has to be aimed at business and technology is simply the enabler.

Another way of seeing digital transformation is as The Open Group consortium defines it in its Digital Practitioner Body of Knowledge standard, which is: “Digital transformation is fundamentally a strategy and an operating model change, in which technological advancements are leveraged to improve human experiences and operating efficiencies, and to evolve the products and services to which customers will remain loyal.”

Willis took The Open Group’s Seven Levers of Digital Transformation framework as a good starting point to make more sense in understanding the concept of digital transformation better.

From this framework Willis came up with a definition he believes sums digital transformation simply as being: “digital transformation is business process transformation and optimisation that is focused on customer-centricity, is data-fuelled and enabled by technology, is led by people from an organisational culture perspective that are strategically aligned to bring about business transformation and the next-generation of products or services.”

At its simplest level, digital transformation is about generating business advantage from digital technologies.

Whose job is it then?

Now the equally important question that needs to be answered is raised; whose job is digital transformation in an organisation? Who is ultimately responsible for this transformation, as someone needs to be held accountable for it and should take responsibility for making it a reality.

To establish this responsibility, according to Hickman, one inevitably has to look at what would be the driver of digital transformation in organisations.

There are actually a few drivers for digital transformation. Changing and improving the customer’s experience is however the first and foremost driver and that is ultimately driven by business and not by IT. IT plays a role in delivering it through technology which as mentioned before, is the enabler, but definitely not the driver.

Digital transformation can be a tricky concept for some to comprehend, especially when it comes to its ownership. You can’t have digital transformation without technology. However, technology is only the backer and not the ultimate owner. It has to be people led.

Digital transformation is not the CIO’s job. The CIO rarely deals with the customer and the direct customer experience. Yes, the CIO will play a role in delivering some of the technology to enable digital transformation, but it is not the role and responsibility of the CIO to drive and see to it that digital transformation in an organisation happens.

As Willis says: “There isn’t one person that owns Digital Transformation, but the primary responsibility lies with the CEO of the company.”

If you think about it in a simple way, if the CIO wants the business to go into a new market, say Botswana, but the CEO does not agree, the company will not be doing business in the Botswana market.

In many cases, the CIO does not directly impact the businesses strategy in any meaningful way. The CIO is there to enable people with technology. If they are making it a CIO priority they are putting it in the wrong place.

Those who say that digital transformation is the CIO's job are probably the same people who are confusing the modernisation of technology and digital transformation.

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