CIOs must step into the digital leadership void

In this excerpt from her latest book, 'Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT,' contributor and IT executive recruiter Martha Heller discusses the CIO's role in digital leadership.

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For Smoley, the keys to bringing all of that digital innovation together are relationships and governance. “We need partnerships with the business so that we can assist in the identification and selection of technology, anticipate scale‑up opportunities, and enable a network of common interest that provides visibility to what each group is doing,” he says. “We need to work with these teams to ensure that their digital activity lines up with our corporate strategy. We need policies, rules, and the ability to fail fast and learn. Our goal is not to control the innovation but to facilitate the networking that results in learning, faster success, and a core digital strategy.”

As a precursor to developing a governance model to facilitate an enterprise digital strategy, Smoley led the executive team in a conversation about what AstraZeneca should be doing in digital. That conversation went well enough that Smoley took it a step further.

“I took the CEO and executive staff, and we spent a week in San Francisco,” says Smoley. “My CTO and I hosted the trip. We met with a group of really interesting cloud companies, some with products and services specifically for the life sciences.”

After meeting with some bigger players, Smoley and his CTO curated a half day of meetings with startup companies. “We did speed dating with a bunch of healthcare-related technology companies, and our executives were completely blown away,” he says. Some of AstraZeneca’s leaders thought that the trip would be a waste of time. Why should they travel so far just to meet some technology companies? “By the end of day one, their eyes were as big as saucers,” Smoley says. “They couldn’t believe how much innovation was in the room. They said, ‘We need to be part of this, and we don’t have to do it all on our own.’ ”

From the goodwill created on the San Francisco tour, Smoley established AstraZeneca’s first “digital center of excellence.” To lead the center, he enlisted a marketing leader from elsewhere in the company who had both the customer perspective and some experience with systems implementation.

“The digital center of excellence spans the whole digital strategy piece, including social, apps, websites, devices, sensors, data analytics—all of it,” Smoley says. While the center is a business construct that stands next to IT, Smoley’s CTO is an official member of the group. “I want to make sure we’re having one conversation around what technology can and can’t do, not two,” Smoley says. “We want to avoid the scenario where there’s the digital conversation and then there’s the IT conversation.”

AstraZeneca’s CTO has considerable responsibility in the digital center of excellence. He scans the horizon for new technologies; connects people across the business who are looking for technology solutions with the right VCs, IT staff, or IT vendor partners; and develops policies and standards around platforms and development.

As CIO, Smoley’s responsibility is to get the center off the ground, select the right leader from the business to take it from infancy to maturation, and champion “digital” as an enterprise-wide strategy. “People have varying levels of urgency on digital,” says Smoley. “Some think we have other things to think about and can wait, and others believe we’ll be left behind if we don’t move now. My role is to facilitate the conversation and build the digital center of excellence model so we are informed and ready to take full advantage as opportunities present themselves. Digital is an emotional area and a new space. There are no clear roadmaps.”

The CIO as digital communicator

Taking on the role of the digital CIO involves more than bringing digital capabilities to your business. In a world whose employees and customers are becoming accustomed to blogs and YouTube and Twitter, “you have to be digital yourself,” says Andrew Wilson, CIO of Accenture. “You need a leadership style that appeals to the post-millennials; you need to be good on camera.”

Wilson differentiates digital CIOs from traditional CIOs. The digital CIO, says Wilson, is an orchestrator of a whole new supply chain of technology providers, a consultant who brings game-changing ideas to the business, and a new kind of communicator. The digital CIO is a role model for other executives still caught in legacy thinking, legacy operations, and legacy approaches to communication. “CIOs can no longer sit there with an IT budget waiting for the business to make demands,” Wilson says. “Technology is pervasive and always changing; the digital CIO should be the first to say, ‘technology can do this in the business.’ That is different from the past.”

So, how does the CIO of a global company of more than three hundred thousand employees, many of them under the age of thirty, demonstrate digital leadership?

For Wilson, who spent more than twenty years running an Accenture business before he became CIO in 2013, digital leadership permeates everything he does, from organizational design to SDLC, to how he communicates to his organization.

“As CIO for a company that employs a large number of post-millennials, I need to cultivate a brand that makes sense to that generation,” Wilson says. “So, I do not write e‑mails; I produce TV shows.”

CIO Live is a TV show that Wilson broadcasts quarterly to Accenture’s entire IT organization. It is shot with multiple cameras, on a set, and before a studio audience. “Imagine The Tonight Show with guests from the business and our senior leadership team,” says Wilson. “I open with a monologue that reflects on news headlines, some of the themes I am hearing from the Accenture marketing team, our critical measures of success, and key messages from our executive leadership. When we were launching an upgraded CRM solution and were about to relaunch our website, I talked about all of that.”

Wilson might have a guest from the marketing team demo the new website or ask his DevOps lead to stand up, “weatherman style,” to walk through a new dashboard. “The PowerPoint is dead,” says Wilson. “Digital CIOs need to communicate with digital products.”

Accenture is a sprawling global organization where Wilson’s guests may not be able to make it to the studio. “The head of our digital practice was good enough to join me, even though he was on vacation when I wanted him to be on the show,” says Wilson. “So he participated on the big screen just over my shoulder.”

Wilson doesn’t stop with the TV show; he is turning CIO Live into a social media phenomenon within Accenture. “Before the show, people start tweeting that they are on their treadmill ready for CIO Live, and I post photos to my blog of me in makeup,” he says. “People across the company get together and watch the show as teams.”

CIO Live has been such a hit that Wilson has set up a virtual TV studio and green screen at home, which will enable him to broadcast more than four times a year. “I call it Virtual Live, and it is linked to my blog,” he says. “These are seven-minute vignettes where I interview members of the IT leadership team on topics of interest to the entire IT organization.”


The chief digital officer role is transient. It is the byproduct of an executive team’s surprise and confusion over their company’s sudden transformation into a technology business. After nearly fifty years in IT, Bob DeRodes has seen the dual technology leadership movie before, in which one technology leader is charged with innovation and digital strategy and another oversees traditional IT. “The movie quickly turns into a horror picture—complete with creepy actors, disappearing bodies, gnashing of teeth, and an all-too-unceremonious public beheading of the CIO,” says DeRodes.

In the new era of IT, digital does not mean handing technology leadership wholesale to a new executive nor does it mean keeping it all to yourself. CIOs in a digital economy need to find ways to distribute technology strategy and innovation throughout the enterprise. When technology is the business, CIOs have a tremendous opportunity to write a different ending to the horror show DeRodes describes. This new movie tells the story of a different operating model, one that involves a major perspective shift and partnerships between the CIO and key business leaders, as, together, they make digital an enterprise capability.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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