Directors & Boards / Evolving the CIO Role in the Digital Age

Companies need a digital transformational leader

By Betsy Atkins

In my role with technology companies (which today means all companies), I’ve seen a turbocharged evolution hit the role of the chief information officer. Just within the past 12-18 months, the role of the CIO has quickly been transformed.

At Schneider Electric, our CIO stepped up to become our effective new chief digital transformation officer. At Volvo, our CIO reports to the new chief digital officer position. My other boards are likewise closely involved in seeking out the digital leadership we know will be needed.

To survive in the new business era, the company needs a digital transformation leader.

The responsibility of incorporating macro tech trends into company strategy is a role that must be elevated to the highest level of the C-suite. Changing the title and duties of your CIO to chief digital officer may not be enough. A dedicated, planned chief digital role should bring leadership to all of the company’s technical and transformative opportunities, serving as a visionary, trendsetter, prod and “tech consigliere” to the CEO and leadership team.

Addressing these digital leadership concerns is a boardroom matter.

What can your board do to oversee digital transformation? As directors, we should lead the strategic discussion on digital transformation, and support new company structures, budget and talent that embrace emerging technology change. Here are some ideas:

Keep abreast of macro tech trends. Support management research on innovative digital business models and ecosystems, like the marketplace model. For example, should you partner with Amazon and Alibaba or stick with current stocking distributors? Forward-looking boards are creating tech committees to keep track of these trends, incorporate technologies, and measure success.
Ask provocative questions. Ask how the company is looking at digital transformation. How does the CIO fit in with coming needs, and what are his/her objectives? Does the current reporting structure enable success? What are we doing to enhance the brand and make our business model more contemporary and effective? How are tech spending budgets reflecting your priorities?
Make sure management is measuring digital success. Metrics like the net promoter score, Klout influencer score, social sentiment score, and conversion of leads can help measure the success of your digital transformation model. Make sure your management team is using such quantitative measurements, analyzing data, and gleaning insights in an effective way. Request that they present this annually at your strategy offsite meeting. Do management rewards, incentives and promotions push toward innovation — or playing it safe?

Ultimately, your company’s technology oversight structure reflects how it values that technology. Make sure that this structure is a business enabler, not just a cost center. In today’s environment, all organizations need a tech leader who embraces tech trends and actively integrates them into the company’s strategy.

Betsy Atkins is a three-time CEO and founder of Baja Corporation. She currently serves on the boards of public companies Cognizant, Wynn Resorts and Schneider Electric. She is also a member on the board of Volvo Cars (private) and the SAP Advisory Board.

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