How to partner with the chief digital officer to drive digital transformation

Digital transformation programs require alignment and collaboration between CIO, Chief Digital Officers, and many other C-suite leaders

CIO and Chief Digital Officer partnership
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Whenever a business embarks on a strategic, multi-year business transformation program there is a strong likelihood of debate in the C-suite on overall leadership responsibilities. This is certainly going to be the case with digital transformation programs especially when there is a strong consensus that CEO leadership is a key success factor to drive digital business and that there are good reasons why they need to be vested in digital transformation. A successful transformation is going to require the drive of multiple leaders in the C-Suite and often necessitate bringing in new leaders to this organization.

One of those leaders is the chief digital officer. There have been predictions that CDO would replace as many as 60% of CIO while more recent evidence suggests that we're at the end of the hype behind the CDO role. The real question for CIO and technology leaders is what role they will play in digital transformation programs. 

Does your organization need a chief digital officer?

Most businesses across many industries require transformation programs to enable digital business and I'm a strong proponent of CIO leading digital transformation. That means if you're the CIO, it should be high on your agenda to work with the CEO to define the digital strategy, communicate it across the organization and define leadership responsibilities.

As the CIO, you then have a couple of options depending on your digital expertise. If you have a background in product development or application development you may elect to take on many digital responsibilities yourself and add lieutenants to your organization for specific areas of expertise. Perhaps you need a lead on customer experience, someone to oversee cloud transformations and enable a DevOps culture, or a data officer to become more data driven.

On the other hand, if you have a very large organization or your skills are more operational then you may look to hire or promote someone to the chief digital role. This person may come from a product management, application development, or a customer experience background and have enough breadth of experience to execute a digital strategy.

One other scenario is when the CEO elects to develop a digital capability outside of the technology organization. The organization may have a centralized CIO and the CEO elects to decentralize CDOs as a business unit role. Perhaps the CMO has a strong, successful digital marketing program and given added responsibilities as a CDO or given the authority to hire one. Lastly, perhaps the CEO made a decision that the best way to align the C-suite in digital transformation is to bring in an outside CDO to lead it. 

Partnering with a CDO

It's important for everyone in the C-suite to check rank at the door before taking on a leadership role in digital transformation programs. Regardless of whether there is a Chief Digital Officer or not, there are going to be many vocal leaders across the organization with different experiences, opinions on the digital strategy and abilities to take on leadership roles. The key to digital transformation programs is getting alignment on the strategy and collaboration on the execution plans across the programs leaders.

Here are four steps to breakdown this challenge.

  1. Ensure customer experience is the primary mission - Successful digital businesses often require exploring new markets, developing new products, and targeting new types of buyers. Understanding these core tenets of a digital transformation program may be new to leaders that haven't developed digital products or delivered new technologies. It's important for the CIO, the Chief Digital Officer, and the CMO to go beyond alignment and ensure their colleagues understand core product development principles and execute a well defined strategy that delivers superb customer experiences.       
  2. Define digital transformation execution responsibilities - Once a digital strategy is formalized, there should be a series of discussions to enable leaders to gain a shared vision on execution. For example, the strategy may target new distribution channels for the organization's services, what customer segments are of importance and what channels to pursue. Once articulated, there should be discussions on tactical initiatives to achieve these objectives and leadership responsibilities should be assigned. If this is done explicitly and early in the process, it can avoid political dysfunction that derail transformation efforts. 
  3. Leverage agile management patterns - There's no need to reinvent the wheel on how to execute initiatives that fall under transformation programs. I've been a strong proponent of leveraging agile practices to drive transformation because it promotes multi-disciplinary, self-organizing teams to readjust priorities based on customer feedback. Agile teams are led by product owners that focus on customer and strategic needs, and separate execution leads (sometimes named technical leads, scrum masters, and other titles) that organize the implementation around sprints and releases. These same patterns can be applied at the highest levels of organization, so perhaps the CDO is responsible for aggregating executive feedback and formulating ninety to one hundred eighty day digital goals, while the CIO is focussed on organizing execution teams, ensuring quality deliverables and, optimizing team velocity.
  4. Align on KPIs and metrics - One of the easiest ways to ensure ongoing alignment is to define and adjust a set of key performance indicators and other metrics that can be used as longer term indicators on the success of the transformation. KPIs on customer success, operational efficiency, or employee engagement are often early indicators of financial success and can be easier to measure and correlate with transformation initiatives.

Keep in mind that CIO already have significant experience managing multiple programs, running agile projects, and aggregating data into performance metrics and should be an obvious choice to oversee implementation. However, if there isn't alignment and collaboration across the leadership team then there is strong likelihood that the transformation program will stumble or fail. The key for CIO is to partner with colleagues, become vocal on strategy, identify technologies that can become strategic platforms, and demonstrate strong execution.

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