Digital Transformation Requires the CIO to Play an Active Role

A top-down approach, along with full C-suite support will allow innovation to thrive.

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Dell EMC

Over almost 30 years of IT industry experience, I’ve found that the key business relationships technology vendors and solution providers tend to value most highly are often with chief information officers (CIOs). The CIO is commonly the highest-ranking IT resource in an organization and makes many decisions about what technology to buy. However, when new advanced technologies come out that are transformational game-changers for businesses, and the CIO is not included as a part of the C-suite of business decision makers, it presents a problem.

Transformation challenges

CIOs are being left out of digital strategy decisions.

  • In 2016, Technova CIO Kumar Parkala, wrote on CIO1 about how only a third of CIOs were actively involved in directing the business strategy of their organization. With so much buzz going on around digital transformation of businesses, it doesn’t take much to see why businesses are finding transformation to be such a difficult challenge.
  • In 2017, MIT research scientist George Westerman summed up the problem, simply stating “While a lot of companies are doing digital, very few are doing it well yet.” In the same article, Gartner mentions internal politics and organizational culture as key detractors to this immense change.2
  • Dell and Intel conducted surveys in both 2016 and 2018 of 4600 businesses across 40 countries to understand where they were on their digital transformation journey. In 2016, only 5% of the subject businesses fell into the “Digital Leader” category, defined by digital transformation being ingrained in the DNA of the business. However, the surprising find for me was that, two years later, the digital leadership category remained at 5%.3

The awareness gap

A gap exists between the technical awareness and trust of non-technical executives and the business awareness of technical leadership. A few years ago, this was underscored for me at a sales kickoff meeting when the CIO of one of the world’s largest networking companies came in to discuss the implementation and rollout of new infrastructure acquired over the past year. The sales leadership had prepped the group in advance to ask some questions.

Once the CIO completed his presentation, up went my hand: “Now that you have this new converged infrastructure in place, what can your business do today that it could not do before?” I expected this to be a very easy question to answer. After all, technology enables businesses to do things they could not do without it, right? He stared back at me like a deer caught in the headlights. He had no idea. His focus was on internal efficiency of IT, not business enhancement, strategic advantage or market share improvement. I had mistakenly assumed the CIO understood the connection between business initiatives and technology advantages.

Digital transformation requires all parties at executive levels to have a deeper breadth of understanding of each other’s disciplines. This is not just about new technology features and functions. True digital leadership requires organizational change, workforce transformation, security management change, as well as modernized infrastructure that allows for fast, agile, flexible ways to address the never-ending challenges to the organization.

Framework for success

Successful implementation requires so much more than a technology swap. This isn’t about data migration, learning new user interfaces and training the IT department over how to use the latest tools. These things will be a part of it. However, what is more crucial is for the CIO to understand how business change takes place.

While only one of many change frameworks, John Kotter’s eight-step change model, is a time-tested step-by-step process that businesses must follow to successfully implement a major business change.4 These steps include:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Build a guiding coalition
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
  5. Enable actions by removing barriers
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Sustain acceleration
  8. Institute change

In his book, “8 Steps to Accelerate Change” Kotter traces failure to focus on each of the steps to numerous strategic business change failures over the past 30-plus years. Going into the details of each step is beyond this article. However, it’s important to realize that these necessary changes cannot be driven by the CIO. They must be initiated and driven by the business leadership first and foremost.


CEO and other C-suite leaders must have a clear understanding of the business advantages a digital transformation will bring. If they are confused or not fully on board, they will not be able to continue the sense of urgency or to sustain the acceleration for weeks and months. This requires the CIO to be able to explain the technical value in such a way that non-technical leadership can understand, trust and bet the future of the business upon it.

As Westerman emphasizes, digital leaders — without exception – take a top-down approach and, without full C-suite support, such innovation cannot thrive.

To learn more

For more perspectives on digital  business transformation, visit Dell Technologies’ Digital Transformation and Transformative Technology pages, and take a look at the Intel whitepaper Role of Information Technology in Business Transformation.


  1. CIO, “Stop undervaluing the CIO’s role in shaping business growth,” August 26, 2016.
  2. Concepta, “CEO, CIO, COO Join Forces to Embrace A Digital Transformation,” May 4, 2017.
  3. Dell Technologies, “New Dell Technologies Research: Business Leaders Reveal Major Lag in Transformation Globally,” January 29, 2019.
  4. Kotter, “8-Step Process for Leading Change,” accessed July 17, 2019.

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