Digital isn’t an emerging technology, or a department, or a role. Digital is a way of doing business, writes experienced CIO and executive coach Larry Bonfante in his latest guest blog.

As an executive coach who works with a lot of CIOs, there isn’t a client I’m partnering with whose organization is not going through some type of digital transformation. Digital is the “flavor of the day” and every CEO and his or her board are frantically trying to catch up or gain a competitive advantage in the digital landscape.

At most organizations, the CEO and board don’t necessarily know what to do about digital. Instead of admitting ignorance, they prefer to do the more comfortable thing… delegate it. Some companies figure that digital is a “customer engagement thing,” so they hand it to their CMO. Others think it’s a “technology thing,” so they give it to their CIO. In companies that don’t trust either of those executives, they create a new role and hire a CDO!

No other executive is better positioned to influence and guide our companies’ digital agenda than the CIO. We have the process management and project management skills to handle enterprise initiatives. Instead of worrying whether we are “in charge” of digital, we need to be the glue that brings together the people and processes responsible for driving digital success. We need to do this through influence, not overt authority. This is a role we IT leaders are accustomed to playing.

Before we explore what digital is, and how to leverage it for success, let’s first establish what digital isn’t. Digital isn’t a “new thing”. It isn’t a “department,” nor is it a “role” (my apologies to any Chief Digital Officers reading this blog).

Digital is a shared responsibility

Digital is a way of doing business. It is perhaps the most important way of engaging and delighting our customers. For many companies that don’t have brick and mortar stores, it is the only way of engaging their consumers. Consumer engagement isn’t a “marketing thing”. It’s a business thing and a shared responsibility across all areas of the organization.

Digital allows consumers to have a personalized experience by touching, feeling and understanding our products and services without having to leave their homes or offices. We need to make our capabilities and brands real to them in a digital way, making their engagement with our companies richer, and transactions easier.

Like most transformations, digital needs to address all three legs of the proverbial stool:  people, process and technology.

People: You need to start with the human element of transformation. Be sure to secure C-Suite buy-in around the outcomes you are hoping to achieve, whether they are revenue related or focused on customer engagement. How? Make sure all parties have “skin in the game” and understand both the investment of their human capital as well as the financial capital. Are people being asked to change their goals to address this transformation, or simply add more to the their already overwhelming list of objectives? Are their incentive compensation plans being linked to these desired outcomes?

Throughout my experience working with over 150 IT executives from some of the most prestigious companies in the world, the most important aspect I have seen is the human dynamic. Do we have the right people? Are we developing them with the right competencies? Are we empowering them to innovate without the fear of failure, which comes with all innovation? What about the culture we are creating? Do people feel engaged and excited about contributing, or are they afraid to take risks?

Process: Do our business processes support how we plan to engage customers in new ways? If you implement new technology over an antiquated set of business processes, you will only have a slicker and sexier train wreck! Are we looking at the “lateral” ways that operational changes impact all of our functional business units? Are we literally doing things differently and doing different things, or are we simply putting the lipstick on the proverbial pig?

Make sure that people are actually willing to operate in a different fashion and are not married to old business processes. How? By tying their compensation, recognition and job promotions to the changes you aim to achieve. And finally, make sure that you have a plan to motivate and educate the staff on why and how to do things differently and do different things.

Technology: Often, the knee jerk reaction many companies have to digital is to throw technology (and money) at it. Some search engine optimization, some data analytics, a little BI, an improved user experience, a new Content Management System and some mobile apps will certainly fix the problem, right? Not really! We need to marry the new technologies to support the operational changes in our processes, not vice versa.

Technology decisions should only be addressed once you’ve addressed the operational processes and human capital development that needs to take place in order to successfully transform your digital presence.

CIOs are in a unique position to influence and impact successful digital transformation. We work across the entire enterprise, so we see how all the business processes work and how they and integrate. However too many of us are caught up in a steel cage match with the CMO or some other business executive in a fight for “digital ownership”. The real answer is that no one executive or group “owns” digital! Since it’s the way we need to do business, the reality is that all the members of the C-Suite must have skin in this game and be responsible for their part of driving digital transformation.

Roles We Recruit


Read our weekly e-newsletter packed with career advice and resources for the strategic technology leader, and information about active searches.

The Heller Report

Add a Comment

My CISO to CIO to CDO Career: With Scott Howitt, Chief Digital Officer of UKG

Sep 13, 2023

Heller Search's Recommended Reading for IT Executives

Aug 9, 2023