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How to be a next-gen digital CIO: secrets from someone who has been there

“Either I deliver, or they kick me out.” That’s every CIO’s daily fear. Your burden is the smooth operation of your enterprise’s growing IT systems on a tightly controlled budget. At best, the IT systems work smoothly and no one notices. But as soon as there is a glitch in the procurement system or a cyberattack, the CIO becomes the target of the company’s accusations. Plus COVID-19 has forced many more business processes to suddenly go digital. Suppliers can no longer send paper invoices so you have to find a way for SAP to accept digital invoices from across the world. As the CIO you are now additionally judged on your ability to effect digital transformation, usually without any additional funds.

One CIO I know has found a clever solution to this two-headed dilemma at his chemicals company. “I negotiated with my CEO that in addition to the annual IT budget increase of 2%, I could keep any cost savings I realized. Then I outsourced IT staff to Eastern Europe and took a couple of other cost-saving steps, which saved me an additional 2% per year. The budget increase I injected into maintaining and upgrading systems, while the 2% savings I invested in innovation projects. The upside for my CEO was that this way, I didn’t come asking him for innovation money all the time.”

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So now that you have money to maintain your systems and to innovate for the business. What next? Simple make sure your innovation is 100% successful 😊 More seriously, as we all know that innovation is an uncertain process, you must gain executive management’s trust in your ability while innovating as fast and effectively as possible. Remain transparent to management: if you can’t show them fully functional applications right away, demonstrate the bottom line and strategic benefits of your innovation projects. Veiling your IT empire in secrecy will only hinder your image as a savvy CIO.

Meanwhile, turbo charge your innovation with the best tools and techniques. The better your prototyping tools and ideation approaches, the more projects you can explore simultaneously. Or better yet, use production-grade systems that already include prototyping capabilities, so that if the prototype does move to production, you will not have rebuild everything from scratch. The faster you can drive each exploration to a conclusion, the more likely you are to have a greater number of successful ones. If a prototype that costs $15k can be built in 5 days with one tool instead of 30 days with others, you obviously want to select the former.

I would define my IT strategy with key input from the business. It was important to me that our HR business partner sat on my IT management committee, because even IT operations are largely a people matter.

– Former CIO of a world leading chemical company

But beyond tools, our chemical company CIO offers another less-known technique: cross-functional teams, not only for innovation but also in operations. “I would define my IT strategy with key input from the business,” he shares. “It was important to me that our HR business partner sat on my IT management committee, because even IT operations are largely a people matter.” He also embedded his IT staff in business teams, to offer feasible digital ideas and solutions. If your company is not already using this approach, introduce it in one or two teams and let the results manifest themselves.

It takes time to embed all these new tools and ways of working in a corporate culture. Be patient and persistent, and soon you gain a reputation as the digital savvy CIO in your company.