Editor's note: The following is a guest article from Mark Raskino, distinguished research vice president at Gartner, Inc., primarily working with CIOs and their business executive colleagues.
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, CEOs were overloaded with pressing tactical issues that required the help of their executive leadership teams. This was especially poignant with regard to critical technology decisions, as CIOs led the charge in supporting the shift to remote work and the required tools and infrastructure that came with it.
CIOs now have the kudos and attention of the CEO in a way that they may not have enjoyed recently – more of a trusted partner relationship with business leadership. In the 2021 Gartner CIO Agenda Survey, 70% of CIOs said they have assumed leadership of high-impact initiatives and that business leaders are simultaneously assuming more accountability for IT projects.
These stronger relationships give CIOs the leverage they'll need for their next big challenge: helping CEOs refocus on leading post-pandemic, long-term digital business growth.
Digital business strategy and business model changes can't be directly driven by the CIO – but as a trusted ally with the authority, commercial insight and personal relationship to wisely counsel CEOs, the CIO can provide critical "reverse mentoring" support.
Here are seven resolutions that CIOs can encourage their CEOs to adopt in order to drive digital business transformation in 2021.
Resolution No. 1: End transformation washing
End transformation washing by being more specific. Rather than saying "our bank is undergoing digital transformation," say "we are hyperautomating back-office mortgage processing and building a platform for more efficient industry collaboration."
Unpacking what "transformation" means within the larger initiative provides clarity to all stakeholders involved.
Resolution No. 2: Refresh digital leadership
As IT programs evolve over the years, digital leader roles and responsibilities often become convoluted. The pandemic serves as an opportunity for CEOs to sharpen such roles.
C-level leadership roles are either permanent or transient. The former actively manage an asset or a continuing threat – think CIOs managing enterprise IT systems. The latter drives change and is eventually subsumed into the permanent role or fades away.
CEOs must determine the most central kinds of technology-related assets (e.g., data) and threats (e.g., cyber) that need to be forever managed, and compare them with the most pressing technology-related changes that are needed (e.g., customer engagement, operating efficiencies) in order to allocate responsibilities clearly.
Removing residual ambiguity about who does what and making digital leader titles as specific as possible to what they actually do is essential to true digital business growth.
Resolution No. 3: Capitalize on forced experiments
The changes spurred by COVID-19 gave rise to what scientists call "natural experiments." This challenged long-standing, preconceived notions — that business travel is essential, for instance — and many leaders were pleasantly surprised by the feats their highly resilient workforces performed as a result.
In conjunction with the CIO and other C-level executives, review the cultural revelations that came out of the crisis and leave old behaviors and false assumptions in the rearview.
Resolution No. 4: Bifurcate digital acceleration budgets
Plenty of CEOs have driven consistent results without aggressive adoption of the latest technology trends. Yet, over time, technology-driven outcomes that were once considered transformational become table stakes. E-commerce is one such example.
Around 65% of CEOs express a desire to redesign their business, and the same proportion intend to accelerate digital business in response to COVID-19. CEOs manage risk by investing in a portfolio mix of into digital catch-up and build back different initiatives.
Resolution No. 5: Integrate digital and sustainability
Many CEOs report facing two long-term business transformation challenges: digital business and sustainability.
While it's common for CEOs to address them separately, higher opportunity lies in integrating them. Think of developing digitally enabled, circular economy business models and reduce loss, or using smart building technology to reduce energy use and drive efficiency.
CEOs can suggest a regular meeting cadence between the head of digital and the head of sustainability to enable joint governance and OKR development. Prevent these two streams of strategic change from competing for resources or distracting each other.
Resolution No. 6: Set a 2030 moonshot
Thinking ahead to the next decade may seem far-fetched, but perhaps it is what some enterprises need. While executive leaders don't want to distract the organization from executing short-term priorities, a long-term vision can help dramatically change the trajectory of the company.
Avoid rethinking your response to the current crisis and demonstrate visible confidence by shifting your energy to the next big thing for the company. Focusing on a refreshed, forward-looking vision will reinvigorate the organization.
Resolution No. 7: Institute agile learning
Digital business acceleration require the right talent, which can be made possible through an agile learning initiative. This is a new, fresh approach that borrows its conceptual underpinnings from the highly successful agile software movement.
In agile learning, employees and their managers are tasked with learning in small sprints embedded into everyday operations. Likewise, culture hacks are applied to change the thinking and attitude of the workforce toward learning and personal development.
CEOs can be counseled to start new personal skills development themselves, alongside the CIO, and make their learning journey visible to others so that a culture of agile learning is set from the top.