5 minute read 14 Sep 2021
Diverse team in conference room with statistics and graphs

4 ways CIOs turn digital transformation into business transformation

By Alicia Johnson

Consulting Principal, Technology Transformation, Ernst & Young LLP

Thought leader in scaled agile methodologies. Focused on global Data Center Infrastructure and Cloud technologies. Outdoor enthusiast. Embedded in the San Francisco technology community.

5 minute read 14 Sep 2021

The modern CIO role has morphed into one that is equal parts technologist, business strategist and transformational change agent.

In brief

  • The CIO’s role has evolved greatly in recent years to focus more on the business value of IT initiatives.
  • A strong digital foundation is the first step in aligning tech innovation with long-term business strategies.

Today’s CIOs are just as likely to be spearheading the technology and data strategy for a new line of business as they are mapping out an enterprise road map for cloud migration. As technology evolves from being an enabler of the business to the lifeblood of the business, the modern CIO is no longer limited to taking orders and implementing somebody else’s playbook. Many CIOs have risen to the level of trusted partner for business transformation, driving the organizational changes and championing the technology and data initiatives designed to secure success in the digital era.

The recent focus on remote work and digitally driven customer and employee experience resulting from the global pandemic underscored the importance of the CIO’s evolving and expanding role.

The expectation is that CIOs have a very business value-driven approach to the way they execute their job and speak the language of the business. More institutions are putting senior IT executives onto the board as a steering mechanism for the C-suite. That has given the CIO a different voice at that level, but it also raises a different set of shareholder expectations of the role technology has to play in transformation.

The CIO’s outsized role

IDG’s 2021 State of the CIO¹ research, which surveyed more than 800 IT and business leaders, confirms CIOs’ continuing metamorphosis not just within the IT organization, but as part of the broader enterprise. IDG identified nearly half of those surveyed (47%) as transformational CIOs, defined as leaders who cultivate enterprise-wide perspective and business knowledge, positioning themselves as trusted partners and strong collaborators with their function counterparts. More than one-quarter (28%) are considered business strategists who are largely focused beyond the borders of the business, involved in driving innovation in preparation for the future state business ecosystem. Nearly all respondents to this year’s survey (92%) believe the CIO role is more digital and innovation focused, with 89% acknowledging the CIO as the principal champion of digital transformation.

How can CIOs capitalize on the equity they’ve built as transformational and strategic leaders? The strategic CIO is focusing on four primary areas.

Fostering business alignment

Key to the mission of the modern CIO is ensuring that technology-driven innovations are in sync with key business goals — not just an exercise in adopting the latest advances in artificial intelligence (AI) or multi-cloud simply because they are generating buzz. With many IT budgets down slightly or in a holding pattern since the pandemic (63% of organizations in the State of the CIO survey cited flat or reduced budgets in 2020), CIOs are again being asked to transform more with constrained resources, highlighting the need to partner with business units to cherry-pick projects with the greatest potential to drive growth and new revenue.

To do so effectively, CIOs need to fully immerse themselves in the business, staying current on core strategy. And they must continue to communicate the value of technology-enabled innovation through a common business lexicon, not in technical terms.

Partnering with business units with cash to spend puts IT in the position of no longer being a service provider, but rather a partner that has responsibility to help the business grow.

Embracing revenue responsibility

As part of their business and strategist charter, the modern CIO is shouldering new profit and loss responsibilities. A sizable 68% of respondents in the 2021 State of the CIO research have been tasked with revenue generation, including creating and managing teams focused on innovation and serving as a strategist to come up with new product and service offerings.

As part of these responsibilities, CIOs should encourage entrepreneurship and an inventor mindset across their technology organization in a way that complements business strategy. Moreover, understanding market dynamics, creating the tooling and funding to support innovation, and orchestrating collaboration with an expanded ecosystem of partners will help them accelerate and scale innovation.

Promoting digital literacy

CIOs need to nurture an innovation culture to help their organization digitally transform. Beyond upskilling employees and recruiting new talent versed in technical competencies such as cybersecurity and data science, it’s equally important to burnish the IT organization’s business chops and develop soft skills in areas such as change management, project management and communications. CIOs also need to collaborate closely with the HR team to define and build-out the new career paths that will help technologists transition to a more business-aligned future.

At the same time, the modern CIO needs to champion digital literacy well beyond the IT organization. You can’t move at an agile pace with sprints and scrums if it’s only the technology team running at that speed. Those expectations now fall into the role of CIO.

Cultivating an agile and adaptive IT ops model

The rapid shift to remote work and the need to create new experiences and channels in response to COVID-19 illustrated just how fast IT needs to move to succeed in today’s digital era. To deliver technology at speed, the modern CIO needs to enable new ways of working, including agile development practices and a services management model that modernizes and automates IT.

In addition, CIOs need to reorient the IT organization to emphasize customer requirements, prioritize work streams, create minimally viable solutions and promote an environment where it’s okay to fail fast. To raise the stakes further, the IT organization needs to transition to more of a product mindset, informed by data-driven insights. And that shift must happen at scale.

“Technology used to support the business, but now technology might be the business,” Alicia Johnson says. “The CIO needs to lay out that future vision, which is vital to the success of the role.”

Technology used to support the business, but now technology might be the business. The CIO needs to lay out that future vision, which is vital to the success of the role.
Alicia M Johnson
Consulting Principal, Technology Transformation, Ernst & Young LLP


The opportunity for CIOs in a leadership role has never been greater, but success requires a different mindset and skills regimen to drive digital-era innovation. As equal parts business leader and technologist, the modern CIO is well positioned to build a digital foundation that transforms the business and empowers long-term growth.

About this article

By Alicia Johnson

Consulting Principal, Technology Transformation, Ernst & Young LLP

Thought leader in scaled agile methodologies. Focused on global Data Center Infrastructure and Cloud technologies. Outdoor enthusiast. Embedded in the San Francisco technology community.

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