Digital can’t be owned by a CIO, CDO, CMO, or any other single executive because it is a holistic way of doing business, advises veteran CIO, Larry Bonfante.

You can’t read a technology blog or attend a conference these days without being immersed in the concept of digital transformation. Every company is frantically trying to decode the hidden secret of transforming their organization to a digital enterprise.

Working with many IT executives in my coaching and consulting practice, it has become clear to me that many companies are addressing digital transformation in the same manner that people react to being stuck in quick sand. They are painfully aware of the fact that they need to do something, and do it fast. However the more they frantically thrash about, the deeper they become mired in the problem.

What Digital Transformation is Not

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve encountered to successfully embracing a digital mindset is not so much about what digital is, but more about what digital isn’t!

First of all, digital is not a “thing”. I’ve seen incredibly bright business people get into an endless and useless tug of war as to whether digital is an “IT thing” or a “Marketing thing”.

Secondly, digital is not a department. Hiring a bunch of developers to run agile sprints, pour through data analytics, and develop HTML code is not driving a digital transformation.

Lastly, digital is not a job title. Hiring a Chief Digital Officer or whatever the title of the day may be doesn’t solve the problem.

What Digital Is

If you ask 15 people "what is digital?" you’ll probably get 16 answers. Here’s my definition: Digital is a way of doing business that leverages technologies such as mobile apps, big data, analytics, web sites and social media to create a deeper more personalized level of engagement with the ultimate consumers of a company’s products and services.

It’s not a technology thing or a marketing thing, it’s a business thing!

Digital Can't Be Delegated

Digital transformation is forcing companies to do some new and very uncomfortable things. Many senior executives are extremely uncomfortable discussing and making decisions about technology investments. No one likes to feel stupid, especially not very successful people! Admitting you don’t fully understand a topic and that you need guidance is a challenging thing for someone who’s used to being the smartest person in the room! Therefore the knee jerk reaction for many CEOs is to try to delegate this “problem” to either the CMO or the CIO to solve.

Some CEOs feel they need to bring in a whole different type of professional and will recruit a Chief Digital Officer who is a hybrid of both functions. The problem with that strategy is that digital can’t be delegated.

Who Owns Digital?

Digital can’t be “owned” by a single executive or department because it is a holistic way of doing business. Therefore the answer to who owns digital is, “We all do!

Digital requires the business acumen, sales acumen, technology acumen, financial acumen and marketing acumen of the entire C-suite. Every executive in the company must contribute to and participate in driving digital transformation for it to be truly end-to-end; for it to deepen customer engagement and drive new revenues.

What Should a CIO Do?

So what should I do as a CIO to help my company with our digital transformation? First of all let’s focus on what you shouldn’t do.

You shouldn’t get engaged in a Texas Death match to try to wrestle control (or as some refer to it, “leadership”) of digital away from your CMO, or any other executive for that matter. That doesn’t mean you should be a spectator watching the game from the sidelines either. There is no other executive who has as broad an understanding of the business processes that drive an organization as the CIO. Therefore you have enormous value to add in terms of how to develop a suite of end to end capabilities across business processes, and how to alter or develop new business processes that leverage technology and marketing capabilities to drive deeper consumer engagement.

The best role for a CIO to play in their organization’s digital transformation is to be the glue that binds together the disparate people, processes and expertise that together can truly transform the way a company does business. Don’t worry about being the person “driving the bus”. Focus on ensuring that the bus is going in the right direction and that it ends up at the best destination. 

Being a team builder may not be as sexy as leading the parade, but your satisfaction will come from the increased value your organization provides to your customers, and a healthier bottom line. After all, isn’t that what business executives are paid to do?

 digital transformation owner

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 CIO Career: Ron Blahnik, CIO of Hibbett Sports, on Leading Both IT and Business Strategy in the C-Suite

Jul 10, 2024

My CIO Career: Frank Iannella, CIO of Heineken USA, on Learning How to Lead Change

Jun 18, 2024