Digital vs IT? Pitfalls of seeing tech as a disjointed unit – CIO Dive

Organizations struggle to seamlessly unite digital capabilities, transformation projects and traditional IT work. Leaders squabble over projects and roles, hindering progress toward technical goals. 

Despite those clashes, companies seeking to outpace the competition must view the components of their technology strategy as a single unit, according to IT executives speaking Wednesday at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Joint projects that focus on the customer can help them get there.

“We’re not going for the othering of traditional IT,” said Akira Bell, SVP and CIO at Mathematica, speaking on the panel. “It’s part of the same value proposition, it’s a different part of the value chain to client success.”

An overly rosy vision of all teams seamlessly working together isn’t exactly accurate. Tension over ownership of projects, customers or initiatives is to be expected. 

“I don’t think, though, that the argument around who owns the customer is between digital and IT,” said Bell. Instead, the rift over ownership lies between IT and digital’s combined vision versus business leadership.

One way executives can connect IT and digital efforts in an organization is to aim all efforts toward unifying projects.  

In 2018, Mercer executive Gail Evans’ titles changed from global CIO to global chief digital officer, though she has since dropped “global.” At the time, the consulting firm billed the switch as a way to elevate the role of digital transformation across the company. 

“We wanted to accelerate the use and application of digital at Mercer,” said Evans, speaking on the same panel. “We wanted to really lean in on the digital foundation, building the foundation of capabilities; lean into the business transformation that’s happening.”

A customer centric ‘city planner’

Metaphors often surround the CIO role. Leaders tend to describe at least part of their role as “keeping the lights on” or “making sure the trains run on time,” in reference to supporting the infrastructure that lets the business operate.

For Brook Colangelo, CIO at Waters Corporation, tech leadership must evolve from being a traffic cop to a figure more akin to a city planner to more effectively bring the organization together.

“We have to start designing the streets, the experience and the roadmap for the future,” said Colangelo. To get there, it’s up to executives to communicate to the entire organization how programs and portfolio items help improve customer outcomes.

At least in part, the pandemic equipped companies to build those customer-centric products. In 2020, six in 10 organizations said they had the digital capabilities necessary for transformation, up from 24% from 2018, according to data from Capgemini. 

But the effort to modernize goes beyond just the technology.

“Digital is not a thing,” Colangelo said. “It’s also not a technology, and it’s not a person. Digital fails when you focus on the tech.”

Organizations will also need to reassess what they define as a technology worker in order to reach transformation. 

“We have to really work, culturally, at changing the way we’ve governed and operated, to broaden the tent of who are the digital workers,” Bell said. “It will eventually be most of the company.”