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MIT Technology Review

CIOs are uniquely poised to lead digital transformation

It used to be simple: CIOs were responsible for IT infrastructure. Now, they’re asked to participate in and even to lead digital transformation. Turns out, that’s a good thing, says Adobe’s CIO.

It’s an unheralded strength: IT operates outside corporate silos. That gives IT staffs—and the CIOs who lead them—unique advantages in the move toward digital transformation.

Traditionally, IT’s primary role was to keep the lights on. Computing services were behind the scenes, running the back office, and otherwise enabling the company’s “real work.” In long-held perceptions, a CIO’s attention, at least for the C-suite, was to equip the data center, make sure the network is up and running, and keep databases accessible.

But organizations are fundamentally changing how they operate and deliver value. Most companies are adopting data-driven business strategies, changing the ways they interact with customers, and integrating technology into all areas of the business.

“People aren’t buying products anymore,” says Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard. “They are buying experiences. So our mission as CIOs is to empower the digital economy, which means a CIO’s role becomes more relevant in today’s world.”

CIOs have an opportunity to become front and center with customers—and a necessity to do so, in fact. “How can we do our jobs a different way and add a tremendous amount of value?” Stoddard challenges other CIOs.

Horizontal, not vertical

In most organizations, each department operates in its own silo. In contrast, IT departments work horizontally. Computing projects regularly serve multiple business units simultaneously, from marketing to manufacturing, collecting data from one silo and packaging it to serve another. That has made IT somewhat immune from corporate communication weaknesses. IT staff learn what users want and need, both internally—“What does the finance team want on its reports?”—and externally—“How are our customers’ needs changing?”

“People aren’t buying products anymore. They are buying experiences. So our mission as CIOs is to empower the digital economy."

In other words, IT is the only department that touches everything. (At least in human terms. Finance crosses silos, too, but only by looking at the numbers.)

That puts a CIO in an ideal position to help the organization in its pursuit of new business models. As business development depends more on optimizing customer journeys and improving user experiences, collaboration across business units becomes key.

“The CIO can bring the horizontal view as a touchpoint,” Stoddard says. “We know how to streamline and present the information better across the whole customer journey.”

Not just data repositories. A source of insights

CIOs can use that horizontal view to help the company—and the marketing staff in particular—create actionable insights, discover knowledge, and improve processes.

The initial strengths are technical knowledge. As the corporate data collectors, CIOs are in a unique position to help the enterprise make a transition to new, customer-centric business models.

“We have been managing data at scale for a really long time,” Stoddard says. Years ago, the task might have been handcrafted systems, enterprise resource planning, or customer relationship management. “We understand the architectures, how they change, what it takes to make them flexible,” Stoddard points out. IT is experienced at changing processes when situations change. That knowledge can help the business go through its own transitions—whether you call them “business transformations” or “keeping up with the changing market needs.”

For example, traditionally, Adobe’s digital marketing business was focused on addressing the CMO’s needs and serving the digital marketing category of business applications. CMOs needed some technology to be successful, but they could stay in a silo to create their marketing material and track trends. But both CMO and CIO roles have changed, and they can achieve much more by working together, says Stoddard.

“Now the expectations are a lot different,” she says. CMOs need to connect to the entire customer journey. Previously, CMOs managed the front part of the journey, such as the initial contact and discovery and customers buying products or renewing services. Today, CMOs need to connect to data and the rest of the organization. A CMO and CIO working together can share knowledge of customers and how to connect with them, with the CIO contributing new ways to service those customers.

“As CIOs, we are architects behind the organization’s digital transformation, business processes, and organizational change.” Stoddard turns to technology to convert planning into practice, using the Adobe Experience Platform to centralize information, keep track of customer journeys, and share actionable insights to service customer needs. “This is something CIOs have been talking about for a long time, and we’re finally able to do it,” says Stoddard.

The personal touch—not what people expect from IT

The key element in a CIO’s horizontal skills to benefit the company is listening. That’s not part of the IT stereotype, but it’s a critical piece of the process.

In the past, IT organizations have largely controlled how technology is deployed, deeming that there’s only one way to do something, or insisting that everyone comply with a corporate (or industry) standard.

Today’s IT services must operate differently, says Stoddard. IT teams should consider how they can take themselves out of the equation so employees don’t have to call IT or go to another party. “How can we entrust business partners to do things themselves? To use [software-as-a-service] applications? To leverage self-service environments?” she asks. “When I meet with my team, I say, ‘Put yourself in the shoes of the customer. What would they feel? What would they think?’”

Be more customer-facing, Stoddard urges. Get closer to your customer. “Doing so has really enriched how I address issues and how I guide my time.”