CIO Leadership Takes on an Even Greater Strategic Role as Digitalization Accelerates

July 14, 2021
BY Peter High Founder and President of Metis Strategy
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Technology leaders are better positioned than ever to drive strategic alignment across their organizations. Here's how to get started.

It may seem strange to think of a technology or digital leader being responsible for aligning strategy across the enterprise. Since the inception of the CIO role, strategies were often created and then brought to them. They were not engaged in the strategic planning processes of the rest of the organization. Instead, they had to bring to life the outcomes of those strategies.

If you think about it, though, aside from the chief executive officer, only the chief financial officer and chief human resources officer has the breadth of purview comparable to a CIO or chief digital officer, and the technology and digital executives are increasingly involved in customer-facing activities in a way that the CFO and CHRO roles have not historically been. 

Technology and digital leaders must recognize that they engage with the rest of the enterprise and the company’s customers, and that is rare if not unique. As such, they must leverage this advantage to a greater extent in fostering strategic alignment. 

Strategic alignment means ensuring there is alignment from enterprise strategy to divisional, business unit, or functional strategy. This alignment is often misunderstood or lacking in companies, and that disconnect means wasted effort and money for the enterprise. 

Further, a lack of well-articulated plans at the divisional level means the path to bringing those plans to life will be murky at best. For reasons of self-preservation and value-creation, technology and digital leaders must push for better. 

Translating IT strategy from the enterprise level to the divisional level is important because it is at the divisional level where the work is done. Enterprise strategy typically calls out objectives related to revenue growth, cost efficiency, customer satisfaction, geographic expansion, product innovation and the like. It is the divisions of the company that determine how each of those will happen. 

Let’s take revenue growth as an example. Growing revenue is vital to the health of a company, but each function — from sales and marketing to specific product or service areas — contributes in different yet important ways. The specifics of what each function will do needs to be formulated clearly to have teams go and find the new revenue through the various mechanisms available across the company. 

Driving strategic alignment

Engage teams to conduct an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). Such analyses are typically simple, easy to understand, and ensure that leaders can gather information quickly, easily and at the right level of granularity:

  • Strengths are a firm’s resources and capabilities that can be used as a basis for developing a competitive advantage. They tend to be current and internally focused. 
  • Weaknesses are areas where the company has traditionally not done well or in which it has gaps in its business capabilities. They also tend to be current and internally focused. 
  • Opportunities are areas where the company can improve or innovate, exploit a gap in the marketplace, or create or improve a business capability. These can be characteristics that provide a competitive advantage for the company. They tend to be future state and externally focused. 
  • Threats are anticipated conditions (internal, market, competitive) that do not bode well for the company. They also tend to be future state and externally focused. 

As you gather feedback from these SWOTs, it is important to categorize the feedback into topics like people, processes, product, brand, geography or market, finance, customers, organization or culture, competition, technology, vendors or partners, and the like. These form the vestigial versions of objectives for the enterprise or division. 

Optimally, you should gather that feedback into a common framework of objectives, goals, tactics and measures. 

  • The objectives are the enterprise’s or division’s overarching pursuits for the mid- to long term. 
  • The goals are the quantifiable metrics that determine the degree to which an objective is successfully pursued or reached. 
  • The tactics are the various actions available to the company that will help it reach the goal. 
  • Finally, the measures are the quantifiable metrics that determine the degree to which a tactic is being successfully pursued. In using a common framework, your IT leadership team can “read the tea leaves” from the enterprise and the various divisions of the company at a common level of clarity and granularity. This is especially useful where there are common themes that emerge from across multiple parts of the company. 

Each objective should have a goal associated with it. This is a success metric that helps chart the path to success.

Using the same rather generic enterprise strategies, the goals might be defined as revenue growth (grow revenue by 15% in the next year), cost efficiency (grow costs at a rate 5% under revenue growth in the next year), customer satisfaction (improve customer satisfaction with our products from 70% satisfied to 80% satisfied in two years), geographic expansion (open 10 new offices in the coming year) or product innovation (introduce two, $50 million revenue products in the next year). 

Try to limit the number of goals to two, as if you go for more than that, the strategy is less of a filter and is permeable to too many ideas. 

Next, the digital and technology leader can brainstorm tactics with members of the enterprise or divisional team who are experts in the area noted by a given objective. As noted above, these are the various actions available to the company (or division) that help it reach the goal(s) articulated. 

It is important to note that tactics should never include the name of a particular solution. The extent to which a project name or a vendor product is noted in a strategic plan renders it more important than it is. The action is one thing; the means of delivering the action are another.

You may believe that Salesforce is the solution you wish to use for customer relationship management, but better to articulate the need for CRM than to note the solution. The solution should be debated. 

The tactics can be more plentiful, and during the brainstorming phase, definitely err on the side of more rather than fewer tactics. After the list is finalized, the tactics should be prioritized. The prioritization should be undertaken based on the perception of which ones are being pursued today, which ones are likely to be pursued in the near term, which will be undertaken in the medium term, which will be undertaken later, and which ones may or may not be undertaken. 

Finally, a measure or measures should be defined for each tactic. For the same reason noted for the goals, try to limit them to two. For the goals and measures, remember the acronym SMART.

Our current moment has provided an opportunity for CIOs and other technology leaders to be the catalyst for their firms’ strategic evolution. These executives should take advantage of driving digital change. Otherwise, they risk digital driving them.

Peter A. High is the author of GETTING TO NIMBLE: How to Transform Your Company into a Digital Leader and President of Metis Strategy, a management and strategy consulting firm focused on the intersection of business and technology.

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