Most informed CEOs seem to know intuitively that the most qualified person to lead their forward-looking business technology advancement isn’t likely to have the profile of a typical legacy CIO. In contrast, the role of a Digital Business Transformation innovator has very different requirements to the traditional IT utility infrastructure custodian of the past.
That said, some progressive CIOs are already making the transition to lead the digital competitiveness quest, and others will surely follow. Moreover, a few multinational companies currently have a CIO in a highly strategic, visible and collaborative position within the company. Their challenge is to guide the rest of the organization’s leadership to attain the required skills that will enable them to actively participate in the planning and execution of a new strategy – empowered by digital technologies.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) market research team recently completed a global study of the path that several organizations have taken to develop and deliver the digital learning support resources that their key internal stakeholders both need and want. The results of this research portrays an environment that may be familiar to many CEOs that have, or are about to, embark upon a similar journey.
The HBR survey found that companies that rate highly in both digital leadership and management have better business results than their peers, with stronger revenue growth and greater profit margins.
Just under a fifth of survey respondents fell into this early-adopter or “Digital Leader” category, while over a third were deemed to be “Laggards” – i.e. an organization that’s weak in both digital leadership and management. Moreover, nearly half of the survey respondents had mixed scores and were rated as “Followers.”
What set the leaders apart from their peer group, in laggard or follower organizations? These proactive CIOs help their business colleagues to understand which digital knowledge and skills need to reside in their function, and which they can defer to the IT support team. The CIOs and their staff typically communicate in language that makes sense to a Line of Business (LoB) leader that’s focused on achieving outcomes.
Why Superior Digital Acumen Matters Most
According to the HBR study findings, digital acumen has become a critical component of all forward-thinking senior leadership teams. But there’s often a significant gap between what’s needed to succeed, and the current state inside many mainstream companies today.
About 23 percent of the survey respondents indicated that they’re confident their organizations have the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in the digital aspects of their business transformation.
However, the recognized Digital Leaders in the respondent group were significantly more confident that their organizations have the both the required knowledge and skills they need -- in fact, 67 percent were extremely confident, compared with only 19 percent of the Followers and 5 percent of Laggards.
Clearly, there’s no substitute for the credibility and confidence that comes from having qualified digital-savvy executive talent at your disposal. Put simply, HBR discovered that the lack of leadership is the number-one issue holding most companies back, when it came to determining their digital business readiness; particularly among the Laggard companies.
Business Imperative for Digital Competency
Perhaps you’re wondering, is the skills development effort really worth the trouble? Does the payback justify the investment in time and energy? Let’s now explore the primary motivation for attaining digital supremacy, and you can decide what’s best for your company, within your industry.
The Digital Leaders in the survey were significantly more likely to have seen revenue growth of 10 percent, or more, over the past two years (58 percent of the Leaders vs. 43 percent of the Followers and 38 percent of the Laggards).
There’s no reward for taking a wait-and-see approach, even if the conservative late-adopter posture was taken with the best of intentions. The Laggards reported that they were twice as likely to have seen revenues decline (18 percent vs. 9 percent).
Fostering Collaboration and Shared Objectives
The CIOs at Digital Leaders are much more likely to be characterized as digital coaches or masters (45 percent of respondents, compared with 26 percent at Follower companies, and only 14 percent at Laggard companies).
By comparison, 45 percent of the Laggard companies had a CIO that’s been characterized as a “turf protector” that inhibits or resists collaboration -- or they merely had no designated CIO role at all.
A full 74 percent of the Digital Leaders have CIOs who support business-led IT projects. That is, when Line of Business leaders directly fund, contract, and/or develop technology capabilities themselves. This response compares with 64 percent of the Followers and only 40 percent of the Laggards.
Furthermore, the respondents who characterized their CIO as a digital coach or master had significantly higher scores -- over 80 percent of those respondents said their CIO supports business-led IT projects. This doesn’t mean, however, that those CIOs are ceding procurement control -- rather, they’re willingly sharing it in order to achieve the desired business outcome objectives of the whole leadership team.
Digital Skills Education and Mentoring
According to the HBR assessment, there’s little doubt that organizations need to do more to increase their business leader’s digital acumen. In the past, learning new skills might be a task that was assigned to the internal Training group or the Human Resources department. In this scenario, the education and mentoring responsibility should go to those who have mastered the digital transformation craft.
That said, finding a role model(s) for digital acumen knowledge transfer can be problematic. While 46 percent of respondents said they would like to learn more about digital trends from their CIO, close to two-fifths said their CIO doesn’t seek to educate and empower LoB leaders when it comes to digital skills.
Besides, over a third of the respondents said their IT team doesn’t provide useful knowledge about technology applications or understand which digital knowledge is most important to specific functions or lines of business.
In a follow-on editorial I’ll share more details about the illuminating findings from this study, and the associated recommendations for a plan of action. HBR Analytic Services interviewed a total of 436 business leaders from across the globe. The survey was sponsored by Red Hat, Inc., as part of The Enterprisers Project.