Leading digital transformation: The CEO is vital

Marco Ryan, Chief Digital Officer at Finnish company and smart technology giant Wärtsilä — before that he was Chief Digital Officer at Thomas Cook, and before that he was managing director of Accenture Interactive — says that for leading digital transformation, you need a cultural change, which must come from the top. The CEO must be fully signed up to the process.

“The difficulty,” says Marco is that “for many people, unless the CEO is a real advocate, the digital transformation process becomes much harder. The process needs the CEO leading digital transformation, the figurehead out there saying to people ‘let’s put this into your KPIs, I really want to see change, this is fundamental to what we do.”

Why digital business transformation is like an onion?

Marco Ryan, a veteran in digital business transformation, likens this process to a digital onion, and compares the old way of doing things to the Parthenon. His ideas shed light on the true purpose and meaning of digital transformation

Lip service

Alas, it does not always happen that way. Marco reckons that in many organisations, the CEO says look ‘I don’t understand it, so I’ll bring in a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) who does.’ In this way, the process of transforming the business has been delegated to one of their direct reports.

“That direct report often struggles with the tension between the business, and the owners. Other individuals reporting to the CEO, particularly the Chief Financial Officer may also have a view on how things should be done, but which is quite different.”

“You’ve then got to think that culturally you need to do a lot of investment to make this real.  You need to create environments where people can learn and test these things on real projects and see quick wins.  You need to create pools which are in themselves best practice but also really help the individuals at the personal level to see ‘what’s in it for me’.

“And then you need some leadership of the digital transformation programme to really drive the change: for example, putting it into corporate KPIs; actively using or talking about this in every management meeting.”

A practical example of digital transformation

Marco Ryan, expert on digital transformation, has been applying his ideas for the Finnish Smart technology company Wärtsilä, and the resulting programme has been drawing attention across Northern Europe. We sat down with Marco, and he gave us a very practical example of digital transformation, the example of Wärtsilä.

Hung up on digital

These days, says Marco, practically every company has a Chief Digital Officer, but that is not enough to drive digital business transformation.

“I think there’s still a lack of true understanding in the board room about digital transformation.”  So, why is that?  “I think, that people get hung up on is the word digital.”

“Digital transformation should really be about getting an organisation fit to cope with the unprecedented pace of change, the disruption that comes from unseen or unknown areas, partly because start-ups can now get access to a lot of the information that previously was proprietary, or because one of the big players, like Amazon, decides to move into a particular market.”

Digital transformation churn: Why the digital transformation fail rate is so high

The digitisation of the global economy has had many effects on global enterprises but few are more significant than the overwhelming desire to undergo digital transformation. Modern companies are under tremendous pressure to undergo this process lest they be left in the past, but digital transformation failure rates have become a major problem.


Leading digital transformation means it has to be fully supported by the CEO, but bear in mind, this is not just about technology, it is about getting people signed up to the process.

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Michael Baxter

.Michael Baxter is a tech, economic and investment journalist. He has written four books, including iDisrupted and Living in the age of the jerk. He is the editor of Techopian.com and the host of the ESG...