What’s the role of the CTO in digital transformation?

The role of the CTO is often all-encompassing when it comes to digital transformation. Simon Wakeman explains how they can achieve success.

Digital transformation remains at the top of the business agenda and organisations in every sector are grappling with the best way to embrace new technologies to stay ahead of their game.

It is an absolutely critical issue for businesses with disruption being faced from all sides, and something that is only going to intensify as the relentless progress of technology marches on.

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Playing catch-up is no longer enough and maintaining the status quo is unthinkable, but while digital transformation may not be optional, it can still misunderstood and even feared, especially at the C-suite where many leaders feel out of their depth with changing technology.

Who should be leading the charge and is the CTO the right person to be at the helm?

Without doubt, the CTO or technology leader within an organisation needs to be included in any transformation project from the outset but they can’t do it single-handed. The CTO needs to be heavily involved in any transformation project but shouldn’t be left alone to fight inertia within an organisation without much help from the rest of the executive team. This is a recipe for disaster.

A team effort

Digital transformation is about how technological choices combined with policy and culture choices can lead to a better organisation. As such, the entire executive team must be involved early on in the planning stages and the team as a whole needs to be an integral part of the ongoing process. Because digital transformation touches every part of a business it needs to be championed and led by the whole senior leadership team.

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A CTO needs to take on the role of the ‘bridge builder’ between the strictly technical components of a transformation strategy and how they can apply to people and process in the specific context of an organisation. Digital transformation is a team activity. Each role needs to bring to the process their full insights and experience for the CTO to manage.

Digital transformation needs to be a team effort. Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash
Digital transformation needs to be a team effort. Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

The CTO has specific technological insight and therefore needs to be directly involved in helping the entire organisation identify where technical systems are simply obsolete and not fit for purpose so as well as being a bridge builder, CTOs naturally lead the charge when dealing with a technology-led approach.

They must be able to explain where the value is in the application of technological change in context – too often we see visions that are de-contextualised from the reality on the ground. This kind of technological planning does not allow for realistic strategic planning.

With visions of the ambitious but feasible in sight it is then the whole leadership team’s task to decide what course they are going to map out and to work together on the digital transformation journey.

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Here are some steps to success:

Undertaking a digital transformation journey together: Key elements for success

1. Understand the drivers for change

You know you need to digitally transform, but do you know why? Understanding this is crucial and will be unique to each organisation, although there are common themes we see time and again. Sometimes these drivers are intrinsic to the organisation and sometimes they relate to the wider context it is operating in.

2. Identify the right approach

It’s vital to consider the different approaches for how your organisation will deliver digital transformation, as this will dictate how the programme of change is planned and executed.

While there are four main broad approaches organisations can take, in reality, a successful programme will take elements from each.

• Process-led: Making change by redesigning internal processes to reduce inefficiencies.

• Technology-led: Starting with the new system to be implemented and then designing from there.

• Brand-led: Using your brand promise and values as the basis for a digital transformation.

• Customer experience-led / Service design-led: Taking an evidence-based approach to designing and delivering a customer experience.

3. Getting going: introducing a roadmap for change

Whatever is driving the change, going from ‘we must’ to ‘we are’ is a big step. What happens next? We recommend the following key elements to get going.

• Take stock: Conduct a digital health check – a short survey designed to yield a large amount of data on how digital is seen and used by various teams, and how the organisation as a whole values digital thinking.

• Think big: Using your organisational vision and the outputs from the digital health check, the next stage is to devise an idealistic concept for how digital will help your organisation address the internal and external drivers for digital transformation you identified in the earlier stages of the project.

• Build advocacy: Create a low fidelity ‘prototype’ of your concept and use it to demonstrate your vision to everyone in your organisation – either face to face, via a recorded talk, web conference, or similar.

• Gap analysis: To act on your vision you need people who are capable, technologies that are fit for purpose, and attitudes, which will foster innovation. Your vision is linked to strategic goals, you’re starting to get staff buy-in, and you now need to understand the difference between where you are now and where you want to get to.

• Define your initial roadmap: The part that everyone is scared of – the roadmap – can be defined broadly in a single day with the right focus and facilitation. If it takes longer than that, it’s probably getting too detailed for an initial roadmap.

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4. Winning hearts and minds

Time and again we see companies start with technology and then move straight onto processes, forgetting about one of the most important elements – people! Really effective digital transformation is about helping people change.

It’s no secret that humans are an easily spooked animal. And so when you say “hey everyone, we are going to transform the business to be more efficient and offer a better customer experience” what people actually hear is “hey everyone, we are cutting jobs and replacing you with software”. It doesn’t matter how you say it, how great your smile is, or what sector you work in. Everyone has the same base response – fear, doubt, uncertainty.

If you don’t replace that fear response with excitement and confidence, it will creep in, set and your transformation is dead before it has started.

Digital transformation can only succeed as a team effort, with the CTO an absolutely key member. With the right understanding, approach and leadership, businesses can be steered into a culture of continuous optimisation and improvement that will enable them to drive change and deliver value.

Simon Wakeman is a global freelance consultant, working with founders, leaders and investors in scaling businesses.


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