“Whilst CIOs have always needed to lead technology change, the goals have shifted greatly during and post Covid. Organisations need transformational CIOs – those who embrace change fully and lead the way with innovation. CIOs who are not leading this change are unfortunately going to be less of an asset.”
– Natascha Polderman, experienced interim and fractional CIO
2020 was a year that changed the course of history. Covid-19, the deadliest epidemic since influenza swept the globe in 1918, killed an estimated three million people worldwide.
Whatever had to be done to keep society ticking over was done. Employees went from working in the office five days a week to being fully home-based overnight. Public bodies shut up shop and relocated online. And where the infrastructure for remote working did not already exist, businesses had to put it in place immediately, or risk going under.
And so began the age of accelerated digital transformation. Chief Information Officers (CIOs) were – and remain – the first responders on the front line of the technological revolution. Almost 25% of all UK businesses faced at least temporary closure during Covid, and CIOs had to undertake the urgent task of keeping the lights on.
In-person teamwork was cancelled in favour of virtual meetings. “You’re on mute, [insert name here]” became the soundtrack to the working day. Chats by the watercooler were replaced with employees instant-messaging each other from the (dis)comfort of their own homes. Society had to find a way to cope, and to do that, we turned to technology in a big way. According to a McKinsey survey of executives, Covid caused organisational digitisation to accelerate by up to four years.
“Every organisation today needs some sort of transformation.”
The pandemic might have been a catalyst for the global shift towards transformation, but the modern digital landscape goes far beyond the make-do-and-mend mentality of early 2020. Despite initial misgivings, workers are now acutely aware of the fact that working from home offers a work-life balance they did not have access to before the pandemic. Without the sardine-can commute, the balance has shifted – enabling employees to enjoy an early morning yoga class, take a well-deserved lunchtime nap, and shut the lid on their workday at precisely 5pm.
But while IT enables logistical adjustments like these, spearheading an organisational mindset shift requires the buy-in of those in charge of leading technological evolution. To help organisations succeed in an increasingly digital, post-pandemic world, CIOs are now stepping up and taking a proactive role in aligning tech capabilities with business ambitions, expanding their responsibilities from the traditional CIO model and coordinating teams from the very beginning.
Change, therefore, is a collaborative effort; innovation and brilliance can come from all different angles. By cultivating the right team, approach, leadership strategy and external partnerships, CIOs are in prime position to drive genuine transformation.
(Photo: I diagram of the Peru Consulting core values)
“When it comes to digital transformation, organisations need to start with: ‘Why are we doing this?’ They must be crystal clear on their strategic priorities and the demands they want to address. If they don’t take the time to invest, they’re going to deliver on vague, misaligned objectives – and they’ll get big learnings from their failures.”
- David Battigan, CIO at AllView Healthcare
CIOs are far from traditional IT managers. Even before Covid changed the digital landscape forever, their position was evolving from operational to strategic. Now, more than ever, the role of CIO is shifting; becoming increasingly complex as expectations change and organisational requirements grow.
Businesses are starting to come to the realisation that they need the right people in place to lead technological change. According to McKinsey, organisations that put digital leads in place are 1.6 times more likely than others to undergo a successful digital transformation. Yet the rising demands for a unified data strategy, reinforced security frameworks and enhanced performance are exerting mounting pressure on CIOs. To drive real digital change, they must take up the mantle of technological leadership; going beyond conventional management to embrace modernisation and embody the innovative mindset needed to survive. And that means putting the right people, procedures and tactics in place.
(Photo: A photo of a team collaborating)
“Not only do you need credible technical skills in IT; you need people who are exceptional at influencing, collaborating, listening and then translating all this into simple, achievable transformational goals.”
This starts with a business-centric approach, ensuring that strategic objectives remain at the forefront of organisational transformation. Relying solely on technology-led architecture often leads to misalignment with business needs and timelines. To achieve overall business goals, CIOs must devise better approaches; creating a strategic blueprint for success that enables them to take the lead in harnessing technology and foster a culture of cross-team collaboration.
Naturally, better approaches lead to better outcomes. Yet this relies on a key factor: better people.
“Throughout my career, some of the most exciting and transformational ideas have come from the inspiration from others – either from talent within the IT team, external partners or by listening to key business colleagues about the challenges they face within their respective areas. I have also had to acknowledge that it is important to remain flexible and be prepared to change things such as strategic plans and goals.”
A technical leader’s core strength is in their ability to think differently to solve a problem. This often means assessing a variety of perspectives on common problems, and the best way for CIOs to do this is by surrounding themselves with multi-disciplinary teams who have a wealth of cross-functional expertise.
A skilled, well-rounded workforce increases the chances of a successful digital transformation that delivers value and drives the business forward. They bring subject matter expertise, align the project with strategic goals, assist with managing change through every channel of the organisation and navigate technology complexities. With a fundamental understanding of the business, technology and people involved, they collaborate and solve problems to push project success. Vitally, while they are on hand to complement the CIO’s leadership and technical vision, they are also perfectly placed to bring fresh and innovative ideas to the table. It’s a winning combination – smart people, with influence and expertise, who are equipped to create a versatile, effective strategy that can be disseminated through the organisation.
By looking at the landscape from multiple viewpoints, CIOs can find new ways of resolving issues and driving positive change. But it’s not enough to simply put the right people in place; that’s just the first step. Listening to – and acting on – their input is essential to fully realise the value of their contributions.
“You’ve got to protect your best people, and that means you need to stop diluting your internal tech and business talent. Stop this at all costs. Your best people can get the job done.”
In the trenches of digital transformation, CIOs must wear a multitude of different hats.
Such a post requires versatility and adaptability, as they must assume multiple roles. And though they are no longer confined to IT management, the increasing strategic freedom their role demands often creates more challenges than it solves.
As businesses seek to realise digital transformation, understanding the evolving role of the technical leader becomes increasingly important. Real-world insights from the CIOs on the front line are a window into the rapidly shifting requirements of organisations in the digital age. They offer a tangible glimpse into the modern world of digital leadership, shedding light on the strategies, challenges, and triumphs of those with first-hand experience.
“Celebrate success and small wins to keep morale and motivation high – but also acknowledge that it is OK to get things wrong and learn from this instead.”
(Photo: A photographic representation of a court room during a case)
Traditional sectors, such as the British justice system, are notoriously unyielding when it comes to embracing change. As staunch advocates of “this is the way we’ve always done things,” new initiatives are rarely implemented with urgency, and transformation is slow. However, there’s no time like an international emergency for forcing an unwilling hand.
“When Covid hit, we needed to find a way to provide access to justice because of the shutdown of the courts. The court system is famously inflexible; we had to pivot an entire sector.”
For David Battigan, a CIO tasked with leading digital transformation within the court system during the Covid-19 pandemic, the journey began with a diagnostic approach. Understanding the root issues was paramount, and David’s team needed to diagnose, evaluate and offer solutions to potential problems – fast.
“The core problem was that we had to continue to provide access to justice for the society in Ireland. People were ultimately being denied this, because of the shutdown of the court system and the court service as a whole,” says David. “So very quickly, from a technology, people, process and total digital transformation standpoint – with that goal around delivering access to justice – we had to pivot an entire sector.”
David was already working at the Irish court service in March 2020, supporting their CEO as a consultant. His role shifted dramatically when Covid hit. “Originally, I was going to be helping them with their modernisation transformation programme,” he says. “But Covid became the greatest flexibility and adaptability challenge of all. The court service is a very traditional sector and a laggard when it comes to digital transformation in particular. Because of this, when Covid arrived, the sector ground to a halt.”
Very quickly, he realised he had a challenge on his hands, the likes of which he’d never seen before. “The challenge was: how do we open up that access to justice and enable the entire legal sector to continue to run? The answer was to digitise the courts,” he remarks. “And very quickly, within six to eight weeks, we had migrated the courts online nationwide in Ireland.”
The speed of this transformation threw up some concerns about adoption challenges for a sector which was so famously un-technical. “The vendors, the internal IT team and the technology partners had to build an entire tech stack – and it wasn’t just that,” David acknowledges. “It was the process piece too. When you come to court physically, the rules of engagement are very clear. It’s a very different world online. The court system had to pivot on a dime to change the entire sector and run courts virtually.”
Quite clearly, technical capabilities were not the concern. Far less certain was the willingness of the sector to embrace wholesale change. “Delivering the tech was actually the easy part,” David laughs. “It was the adoption piece, it was the rules of engagement, the softer side of it. We had to bet big on that technology stack to run virtual courts.”
(Photo: A virtual court hearing as seen on a laptop)
With so much at stake, it was a risky bet – but it paid off. By showcasing tangible results early in the transformation journey, David and his team were able to spearhead widespread adoption. “It stunned us completely. The barristers, the wider legal houses, the judges themselves, the support staff around the judges and the staff within the court service itself… the adoption was staggering. Staggering,” David marvels. “Very quickly, within six to eight weeks, all the courts across the country had adopted the new technology and were running with it.”
This, obviously, was digital transformation at its finest. But for David, the most interesting part has been the long-term shift in the legal sector’s approach to technology since Covid.
“All parts of the legal ecosystem have changed,” he points out. “Barristers resisted change initially, but eventually became some of the greatest adopters. They became ardent supporters of virtual courts because they are so efficient.”
The importance of eliminating efficiencies, optimising resource allocation and revolutionising the legal sector’s IT systems cannot be overstated. The weight of legacy technology in a traditional industry, and the imperative to articulate the 'why' behind digital transformation, is a vital element in the quest for change. By achieving tangible results early in the transformation journey, CIOs can garner support and confidence from decision makers and stakeholders, laying a solid foundation for continued progress and a shared vision of success.
For Natascha Polderman, a CIO working to foster a collaborative culture within her organisation, the challenge was to bridge silos and encourage cross-functional teamwork. With the IT department and business stakeholders at loggerheads, she had to find a middle ground and lead technological change that catered to the needs of both parties, unifying the company and enabling them to work towards shared ambitions. To compound this, navigating the digital skills gap posed its own set of difficulties.
“In my experience I have been involved in programmes that were of a very large scale, such as changing the entire technology landscape within the organisation, improving margins through better technology as well as introducing client platforms that were revenue-generating,” says Natascha. “When components of those programmes did not work, it was often because we did not have a common shared goal with our business partners, or we tried to do too much at the same time.”
Establishing a shared goal is imperative. Without this, strategies are disparate, and departments cannot work cohesively. “There was a situation where I had just taken over as CIO,” Natascha recalls. “I was trying to digitise the risk insight, but I had IT on one side – very technical people – and then the business stakeholders on the other. These stakeholders had an idea and weren’t convinced it would work but wanted to drive change.”
The desire for transformation was there, but neither department could agree on the deliverables. “There was this two-stream approach, and programs weren’t going in the right direction,” Natascha admits. “The development team were delivering things that the business team thought the client wouldn’t like. It led to overspending due to the very high cost of resources.”
So how did she rectify the situation? “We had to become an agile product team and work as one,” she says. “We established a common goal and worked together. In the end, the actual product map was decided by the key core business stakeholders with input from IT.”
By redirecting the focus from departmental siloes to a culture of efficiency, collaboration and cross-functional expertise, Natascha was able to lead widespread change. And yet she acknowledges that the digital skills gap was, and remains, a significant challenge. For CIOs facing similar situations, she offers the benefit of her experience.
“Step one is to assess the current skills – not only within the IT department but across the wider business,” she advises. “Digital transformation is not going to be achieved by IT alone – the organisation itself needs to embrace this change as well. As a result, not only do you need credible technical skills in IT; you need people who are exceptional at influencing, collaborating, listening and then translating this into simple achievable transformational goals.”
For Natascha, the crucial takeaway is for CIOs to assess the skill set they already have, determine what they’re missing, and take steps to fill the talent gaps.
(Photo: Two employees collaborating and upskilling themselves)
Of course, this does not always have to mean sourcing fresh recruits. “A lot of organisations talk about the need to upskill their people and I think this has to be a priority for any company – full stop and without fail,” she declares. “Artificial intelligence will inevitably shift our focus and will result in the simpler, manual tasks being done by AI, thus leaving the more complex problem solving asks to humans. It is this that I think we will need a wide range of skills and diverse backgrounds to help fill the digital skills gap.”
Most importantly, she recognises the need to engage external partners as a matter of strategic priority when it comes to filling digital talent shortages. “Even in larger organisations where the IT budgets might be more accommodating to finding higher-skilled talent – and more of it – I firmly believe that building external partnerships is essential when filling that digital gap,” she says. “External partners will be working with a wide range of industries, solving multiple challenges and opportunities, and they often bring something different to transformation programmes as they will see things objectively, without the internal politics or pressure.”
She also believes that partners should be engaged as an intelligent first response, rather than an emergency last resort. “This crucial for CIOs because it provides access to specialised expertise, accelerates project implementation, mitigates risks, and enhances resource scalability. To do this effectively, CIOs should align partnerships with strategic goals, conduct due diligence, maintain clear communication, foster collaboration, establish governance, and be open to adjustments,” she says. “By approaching partnerships proactively and strategically, CIOs can optimise resource allocation, gain competitive advantages, and drive innovation within their organisations.”
Change projects are enormously complex undertakings, and to achieve genuine success, the need for seamless integration is undeniable. The era of the background-lurking IT department is long gone; the modern landscape demands individuals who not only possess technical expertise, but an understanding of business strategy and a desire to co-operate. By maximising the value of partnerships and supplier relationships, CIOs can promote new ways of working, encourage the wider business to embrace co-creation strategies, and unleash potential through collaboration and shared responsibility.
CIOs have a crucial role to play in making things ‘better’ for their organisations, largely due to the central role that technology now plays in the modern business landscape.
The role of the CIO has evolved significantly over the years, and it now encompasses various responsibilities that directly impact an organisation's success and competitive advantage. Increasingly, this advantage is underpinned by technology – and if technology is not considered essential to the business strategy, the organisation will struggle to sustain itself.
Though the pandemic has passed, the economy is facing a period of vast instability, compounded by the worldwide impact of the wars in Ukraine and Israel. As society reels from the global effect of such catastrophic events, there will undoubtedly be new challenges ahead for CIOs to navigate.
To withstand upcoming obstacles, executive presence is key. An organisation without the CIO on the executive board is going to struggle to achieve the goals necessary for success today and in the future. Of course, to be truly transformational, CIOs need to have more than technology skills; they need knowledge of the business and awareness of what the customer wants, as well as an innovative, open and influential mindset.
They also need the ability to develop a strong, motivated technology team – and a world class leadership team with external partners. By appointing someone who can lead the day-to-day operational activities, such as finance, service management, support and infrastructure, CIOs are empowered to focus on strategic activities as well as building strong interdepartmental relationships with the business.
Ultimately, the CIO’s core role is as a strategic enabler to organisational success. Embracing transformation is no longer optional; it is the very essence of progress and survival.