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Becoming a digital business

What does it take to be a great digital CIO?

By Neil Louw, Group CIO, Dimension Data with Rob Coombe, CIO, Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation, and Brandon Eisenstein, Senior Digital Strategist, Dimension Data

Create business value by collaborating

The key objective I’ve been given by my CEO is to drive a specific percentage increase in bottom line profit. It’s an entirely business-focused goal.

But I’m not the only person in our company with this objective – every member of our Executive Committee shares the same metric.

This means two things. Firstly, that my role as CIO is to increase value to the business and, secondly, that digitalising the organisation is a shared responsibility and I have to collaborate with the rest of the business to do it.

My role as CIO is to increase value to the business.

This sums up the CIO’s role in digital transformation. It’s about creating business value by collaborating.

Digital CIOs are measured on business metrics

It’s the same for Rob Coombe, CIO of the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation: ‘For me, digitalisation is about adding business value. In the past, the role of a manufacturing CIO was about running an enterprise resource planning system. I was measured on uptime, capacity, and sticking to SLAs.

‘Now the job is all about delivering business value from information. We’re starting to use the Internet of Things (IoT) to gather data and make better decisions in water management, remote crop monitoring, fleet utilisation, and on the factory floor.

‘I’m measured on hard business metrics: net profit, return on net assets, and total unit cost. The old measures haven’t gone away – they’re just taken as given now.’

We’re in it together, but the buck stops with me

Every CIO in the digital age wants to be a partner to the business but, by definition, that’s not something you can do on your own.

My fellow Executives at Dimension Data make me acutely aware that if I don’t succeed, they don’t succeed. They’re all tech-savvy people and they like to talk about the SaaS services they think they could use to run their part of the business.

But they don’t always see all the other things that I have to worry about: integrating clouds with legacy systems, security, regulatory compliance, ISO standards, resilience, and so on.

The CIO is the one who has to navigate the complexities of implementation, and in a large established organisation, these are considerable.

CIOs orchestrate partnerships

Rob says that digitalising an integrated agriculture and manufacturing business is giving him some surprising challenges too: ‘The main challenge in my job today has nothing to do with technology. It’s getting people to work together – within the company, and between the company and the outside world.

‘The main challenge in my job today has nothing to do with technology' - Rob Coombe, CIO, Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation,

‘This is changing what we do versus what we get others to do. I employ my own people to do the more value-add work and I get partners to do the technical parts.

‘You can’t go digital in silos. It has to be done holistically to work. It takes a broad set of integrated capabilities, and there aren’t many companies that can bring it all together.

‘Focusing on a small ecosystem of partners with broad capabilities helps us do things in an integrated fashion. If you have lots of partners, each doing just one piece of the jigsaw, you only end up with more systems to integrate.’

Being a CIO is about managing people and skills

Bringing IT and the business closer together at Dimension Data means working with our Group Executive for People & Culture on organisational design and the impact automation will have on our workforce. We also create multi-disciplinary teams to connect business functions with IT.

The need for the CIO to manage technical skills isn’t new, but the skills we need to manage are. I’m no longer particularly concerned about the number of people conversant in a certain programming language. What the business needs today is multi-skilled people with what I call ‘contextual IT skills’, like a business analyst who really understands procurement and logistics.

Rob explains it’s the same in his world: ‘Skills are a major issue for us. The amount of technical skills we need is reducing, but we need more business analysts, business intelligence specialists, and IoT experts.

‘Our IT department only employs 1% of the people in the company, but we use 18% of the training budget.’

The characteristics of a great digital CIO

The career path to CIO used to be working your way up through IT. But the digital CIO needs a much broader base of experience and personal qualities. You need:

  • a good understanding of business, with experience in running an operating division
  • change management experience, with good communication and people skills
  • an openness to change, to new ideas, and a willingness to change personally
  • and the surprising one…
  • … the ability to make decisions. This may sound obvious but it’s different these days. Everyone has a valid opinion on what we should do which makes decision making more complex. But today the stakes are much higher: it’s no longer just about technology, it’s about the business.

Because in a digital business, technology is the business.

Will we need a CIO in 3 years’ time?

Before we know it, technology will be at a level where companies just consume it and won’t need a CIO to build and operate it themselves.

This trend isn’t new, but its logical implication is that, when companies consume technology as a utility, they won’t need an internal department to build and operate it themselves.

There’ll still be an internal IT function, but it’s role will be strategy, business innovation, application and supplier management, policy, governance, risk, and compliance.

I consider it part of my job as CIO to have radical opinions.

The head of this function may still be called the CIO, but their role will be more like a Chief Integration Officer.

I consider it part of my job as CIO to have radical opinions like this. It helps give the organisation a sense of urgency, guards against complacency, and it’s realistic because change happens faster than you think.

Where do we go from here?

One of Dimension Data’s senior digital strategists, Brandon Eisenstein, gets to work with a lot of CIOs and sees some interesting patterns emerging.

‘With all the changes that are taking place, the CIO’s career path can go two ways from here. If they continue to lead the IT organisation as a separate entity from the rest of the business and just act as a service provider, the term ‘CIO’ could soon come to stand for Career Is Over.

‘But, if they can transform personally, network actively across colleagues and partners, and orchestrate meaningful change, then ‘CIO’ will come to stand for Chief Integration Officer. This way, they’ll remain relevant and be at the forefront of the organisation’s digital transformation.

‘Then the CIO’s future, and that of the organisation they work for, will be assured.’

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