Want to get things done in tech? You'll need these surprising new allies

Tech chiefs need to make some new alliances if they want to deliver the projects they want.

Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide (2021 update)

The ever-increasing demand for digital transformation means CIOs must work to build even stronger relationships with their line-of-business peers. That means building alliances well beyond the IT department.

Building bonds with other departments – particularly human resources and marketing – will be crucial to ensuring that new technologies, such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence, are not just implemented but exploited in a way that helps businesses change and grow.

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McKinsey also notes the importance of partnering. The consultant says CIOs can further develop their influence by taking responsibility for initiatives that generate business value, such as building an e-commerce operation or working with a business-unit leader to launch a digital product and then measure its success.

SEE: Project management: How to cope with massive uncertainty and get stuff done

One of the most crucial partnerships for CIOs will be with chief marketing officers (CMOs). As many as 90% of European CIOs strongly agree that partnering with the CMO helps to improve their organisation's customer experiences, according to a recent survey of global IT leaders by Adobe. 

That's a view that resonates with Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard, who says the key to creating a strong bond between CIOs and CMOs is the ability to share ideas on data-led solutions to the organisation's most important business challenges.

Marketing teams have a strong awareness of how to apply analytics because they've been using the technology for many years. IT departments, meanwhile, have been focused on managing data. Now, Stoddard says both teams need to merge their knowledge to help improve customer experiences.

"They need to use the tools and expertise that both organisations have had and put them together. They need to look at experience across everything that the customer does, which includes invoicing, finance and support," says Stoddard.

The growing connection between technology and marketing explains why almost two-thirds (64%) of CIOs now meet with their CMO counterparts on a daily or weekly basis. That's true at Adobe too, says Stoddard.

"When I look at my own IT organisation and how we partner with marketing, if you were to go on a virtual conference right now, I guarantee you would not be able to tell who was from IT and who was from marketing because that's how closely they work together."

While bonds with marketing must be strong, IT chiefs must also reach out to other departments. Stoddard says effective partnerships with HR executives will help CIOs to ensure that large-scale digital transformation programmes are accompanies by a significant focus on cultural change.

"We have a very tight partnership across the organisation with our head of HR and that supports how we want to work as an organisation and the cultures that we want to have," says Stoddard, reflecting on what happens in her own company.

As many as 83% of European CIOs see themselves as change agents who want to play a key role in improving the culture of their organisations, says Adobe's survey. 

Other research also highlights the importance of driving cultural change. Boston Consulting Group says companies that focus on developing a supportive culture – such as encouraging partnership, interaction and iteration – are five times more likely to achieve breakthrough performance from digital transformation than companies that neglect culture.

Stoddard says successful CIOs will go above and beyond to ensure that the benefits of new technologies are articulated and understood.

"When I look at big initiatives that I'm running in my own business, change management is a key component of everything that we do," she says. "The solutions that we provide for our employees are going to impact how they work, and it's going to impact their culture."

SEE: What is digital transformation? Everything you need to know about how technology is reshaping business

Rather than just focusing on the implementation side of technology projects, successful CIOs partner with other executives to ensure people across the business understand the benefits of digital systems and services.

"Build relationships across the organisation and get to know as many people as possible because that's where you learn a lot about priorities and goals and objectives," she says.

Crucially, that relationship-building exercise isn't just about building bonds with senior managers. Smart IT professionals will continue to stay grounded as they move up the ladder. Remember the people who generate the great ideas and stay connected to them, says Stoddard.

"Individual contributors do the work; they make the organisation successful. So keep your ear to the ground about what's going on, because your people have so much to say and so much to contribute. And you can take this input, internalise it and bring it into your own strategic vision." 

Stoddard says the good news is that her conversations with peers suggest that CIOs have an opportunity to exert their new-found influence and change the business like never before.

"I'm very positive about the role of the CIO," she says. "I think some of the CIOs I've talked with were hitting a wall with trying to do digitisation within their organisations before the pandemic. But now people are more appreciative of the CIO than they were in the past."

SEE: Digital transformation: Two CIOs explain how to make it work

Three-quarters of tech chiefs say that their role has expanded, their responsibilities have increased, and that they have greater influence on leadership decisions in the business, according to Adobe's research.

It's a theme that resonates across other surveys, too. Recruiter Harvey Nash and consultant KPMG report that six out of ten (61%) CIOs believe they are more influential as a result of dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Stoddard says this shift in perception highlights how technology increasingly has no boundaries. CIOs in the not-so-distant past were stuck in their IT organisations and unable to influence decision-making processes across the wider business. Now tech chiefs who work closely with the peers can play a crucial role in helping their organisations to change and grow.

"There were walls around IT and nobody really understood what technology did," she says. "It was a black box that people didn't connect with. But now technology is all over the place, from the marketing to the finance organisation. There's a better understanding of how IT can enable change."