CIOs hold the key to unlocking the door to digital transformation

The idea behind ‘digital transformation’ has been bandied around the boardroom ever since the first Ethernet cables were fitted. Over the years enterprises have applied the term to their organisations in different ways; each grappling to integrate their own blend of technologies in a bid to harness their collective power to boost corporate productivity, communication and efficiency. Few, sadly, can claim to have succeeded.

In this effort, the creation of a chief digital officer (CDO) has been touted as ‘the answer’ to the struggle; an executive whose raison d’être is to oversee a firm’s tech evolution. Three years ago, Gartner predicted that by 2015, as much as 25 per cent of all organisations would have a CDO in their executive staff.

In a press statement on the topic, its vice president, David Willis, painted a promising future: “The Chief Digital Officer plays in the place where the enterprise meets the customer…They’re in charge of the digital business strategy. That’s a long way from running back office IT, and it’s full of opportunity.”

Here’s the rub: in most organisations there remains a colossal gap between the IT systems in place and the business’s ideal mode of operation. This gap has, over time, created entrenched processes and habits that are now hampering the CDOs efforts to drive operational change. This is the reason why the CIO, not the CDO must lead the way.

Despite being widely unrecognised, the CIO already has the required skills: a sound understanding of the business combined with a ‘warts and all’ knowledge of the firm’s systems and their evolution. The problem is that they have been excluded from the blue skies, ideal-world strategic planning (the home turf of the CDO), principally because they and their departments have been wearied and worn down by endless challenges; systems complexity, data breaches, austerity and years of firefighting just to keep their systems going. Sadly the CIO’s is not a department that has been able to demonstrate the strategic prowess needed to win the confidence of the Board.

But given the support and right resources, it is the CIO that can bridge the divide and provide a sustained technology base for the CDO to focus on the digital opportunities that will drive transformation across the entire organisation.

Digital transformation starts with employees

While media hype around the role of the CDO has been intense, a huge number of column inches have also been dedicated to ‘next-gen tech’ like the Internet of Things (IoT), including how such initiatives will tip the balance and trigger the wave of digital transformation we have all been waiting for. IoT will certainly play a key enabling role here, together with enterprise mobility, the cloud, software applications and big data. But before any of this, businesses must first acknowledge the critical role that their employees have to play.

For too long employees have been hamstrung by software applications that are not fit for purpose. Many are ill-fitting and unsecure consumer apps that have been adopted for the business world. Others are legacy application suites that were introduced to address a specific departmental issue that has since been resolved. This siloed, ad-hoc approach to systems integration has left enterprise workers needing to work-around applications that were deployed with little consideration of their wider, future impact.

Consequently, if the digital transformation is to succeed, the CIO must be given the ability to work with and empower passionate employees throughout the company. They need to identify pockets of energy, passion, and experience and foster them in order to champion change.

CIOs must be given control over enterprise resource planning (ERP)

Employees are the sparks, but for the fire to take hold, enterprises must also ensure they put the right technologies in place at the right time. In most instances this won’t happen unless the CIO is involved.

We need to learn the lessons of past mistakes in software procurement. For too many years, and in the face of overwhelming pressure from both the Board and end-users, IT departments have been enslaved by the ‘there’s an app for that’ craze. Workers, together with their devices, workstations and the wider enterprise infrastructure have all become bogged down by unnecessary or out-dated applications. These issues have arisen because divisional heads have pushed through software investment without considering whether, if or how their chosen asset can integrate with the firm’s business systems; a job perfectly suited to the CIO.

Unified communications (UC) is a prime example. For years, UC was touted as the next big thing that would improve employee productivity and collaboration, but too few improvements have been made and too wide an array of products and solutions have been forced upon end users. As most applications have failed to hit the mark, firms have been left with disparate pockets of instant messaging applications, for example, many of which are still coupled to quirks of departmental process and none of which can be integrated with a unified whole.

One of the CIO’s first actions should be to audit, assess and cull redundant software assets; or risk facing needless integration complexities and licensing costs further down the line.

A digital silver lining

While the challenge to digitally transform an organisation may not happen overnight, thanks to the cloud CIOs now have an opportunity to re-balance the scales. By moving their legacy IT into the cloud, migrating users to cloud-native applications which are integrated, upgraded and licensed on a managed service basis, CIOs can redeploy critical internal resources away from firefighting and toward more strategic initiatives. This evolutionary leap in technology has now opened the door to true digital transformation.

Unified communications should be the first coordinated step. Implemented in the cloud as unified communications as a service (UCaaS), CIOs are able to pool their legacy knowledge of business process and software utilisation with the strategic plans of the CDO.

This enables them to design new working environments and experiences that transcend the legacy barriers of on-premise systems, seamlessly integrate UC with their existing infrastructures without incurring massive CAPEX, and give end-users the ability to effectively co-create and co-innovate.

More importantly the cloud offers the CIO the chance to put in place the building blocks of a sustainable and future-proofed digital enterprise which, in turn, will enable the CDO, finally, to thrive.

Indi Sall, technical director, NG Bailey’s IT Services division

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