Can CIOs lead digital innovation?

hand_on_touchscreenThere was good news for CIOs in the 2014 Gartner CEO and Senior Executive Survey report published recently. When asked which member of the C-suite they would make responsible for leading digital innovation and change over the next two years, the 410 respondents identified the CIO as the most likely role. This is quite a turnaround from the 2012 survey when CIOs were rated much lower on the list of potential digital leaders.

This represents a great opportunity for CIOs to become a key member of their organisation’s leadership team. And, for those CIOs that successfully take on this challenge, it is likely to lead to further opportunities and career progression beyond the CIO role to COO and even CEO positions.

There is, however, a sting in the tail of the Gartner report; remarking on this sudden change in the expectations of the CIO role, Mark Raskino, vice president and Gartner Fellow, noted that “over the last decade, CIOs and the IT function in general have often been tasked as IT cost managers and service quality assurers, but not as strong innovators or business strategy contributors.” And in a warning to both CEOs and CIOs he suggested that this could lead to “some disappointments” in organisations where the CIO is not equipped to lead digital innovation which will in turn lead to “some churn in the role” as a result.

That is a fairly stark message to CIOs but is it a fair one? There is plenty of evidence that CIOs struggle to allocate sufficient time to work on innovation as the majority of their time is spent on the day-to-day aspects of running the organisation’s exiting systems. This is a subject I covered in the article It’s not just CIOs that need a new model for IT, in which I discussed the results of no less than four surveys that all highlighted this problem and explained why CIOs need to reinvent the IT function to address the issue of how they spend their time.

But leading digital innovation is more than just having sufficient time to focus on the subject. Whilst the CIO came out top of the list of roles that should lead digital innovation in the Gartner report, CEOs also highlighted that many other roles should be heavily involved in leading digital initiatives. In other words, CEOs see digital as a team activity. This is not surprising given that digital spans the entire business. To successfully transform the organisation, all members of the leadership team need to work together to create the holistic and joined-up approach that is essential to being a digital business.

Front cover advertTo lead their C-suite colleagues in this process, CIOs will therefore need skills and experience beyond technology; relationship building, influencing and collaboration will be just as important as technical knowledge. The CIO in the digital age is a much more social animal than the CIO of the past. And they also need to be viewed as a credible business leader and not just the senior techie, with deep knowledge of the business, its customers and its markets. They need to create a unique combination of technology, commercial and operational experience that very few executives are likely to possess.

For most CIOs this will be a major shift in focus. As Raskino points out most businesses have not required or expected their CIO to be more than just the organisation’s technology leader and have treated them accordingly. Indeed many CIOs would have been appointed for their technical knowledge and their ability to manage the day-to-day and not for their strategic or innovative capabilities.

Some CIOs are already there – take a look at the top 20 of the CIO 100 and you will see many examples of CIOs that are already playing a leading role in shaping the digital future of their organisations. But many are not and for them the clock is ticking. They need to start the process of transforming their own roles and acquiring the skills and experience they need to lead their organisation’s digital innovation.

The repositioning of the CIO role is one of the key themes of my book, Disrupt IT, in which I define a new model for IT in the digital age. Through a framework of seven principles I also provide advice on how to design and manage the transformation to this new model. Reflecting the importance of having the right CIO with the right skills and experience, three of the principles focus on the CIO role and provide practical advice and guidance for making the transition from technology leader to business leader.

Whether CIOs can make this transition will determine whether Gartner’s prediction of churn within the role comes true. And for the wider organisation it may determine whether their path to becoming a digital business is a smooth one or whether they will face disappointments along the way.

Disrupt IT is available from Amazon in print and Kindle formats. Country links are listed below:




  1. From one practitioner to another Ian, CIOs will get there in their time and hopefully that is faster than the time enterprises will take to understand what digital means to them.


  1. […] Can CIOs lead digital innovation? […]


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