Beyond the Comfort Zone – The Digital CIO

I recently came across an article in the British CIO Magazine, titled ‘Beyond the Comfort Zone’ and describing an IDG survey among CIOs. Only two out of ten respondents felt fit to fulfil the role of a ‘digital CIO’. Wait, I thought, a CIO is a Head of IT – and isn’t IT by definition digital? No. According to the article, a ‘digital CIO’ is one who can help digitalise the entire business, not just hardware, software and network. Anyhow, the results seemed devastating: to date, only 16% regard themselves as ‘innovation partners’ within their company. No more than 44% think it is an important part of their job to create technical teams that understand the business. 48% consider developing a long term strategy as significant. And just 51% rate knowledge of their business as relevant.

Nevertheless, IDC predicts that within two years, more than 70% of all CIOs will move from directly managing IT to becoming an ‘innovation partner’. The CIOs questioned are similarly optimistic: 93% of them declared they hope to be ‘digital’ in five years’. But how is this transformation to come about?

The article gives an answer. Its authors have even managed to cast it into a catchy formula: the ‘5C skill set’. 5C  translates into Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Customers, and Capability. All CIOs have to do to become ‘digital’ is to leave their comfort zone and improve their competencies in these five fields; ideally within the next two years. Case rested. Problem solved.

Or is it? I think this interesting article has a few things more to tell us – even if  I strongly agree with the idea of the 5C. These are most certainly the skills without which no way leads into a successful future. And most CIOs I have met already possess them to varying degrees. You don’t easily make it to C-level without a minimum of soft skills.

However, for those who don’t, things may not be quite so straightforward. In the world of business, people are generally hired into positions because they have a distinct set of skills. Which typically means, ‘This is the finite number of things I am very good at’. Not, ‘I can be good at anything’. How likely is it that somebody – anybody – will master new skills such as communication, collaboration or creativity within just a few years’ time, skills that most people do not become particularly good at in a lifetime? And that besides having to help run a company?

We mustn’t confuse postulates with prognoses. You don’t teach an old pony new tricks. Some companies might consider buying a new pony instead. The majority, however, can be expected to stick to the old adage of ‘never changing a winning team’. And rightly so. Because their teams aren’t losing – yet. Moreover, even if companies wanted to, they couldn’t possibly all at once find better people than they already have.

As a result, we can safely assume that for the majority of enterprises things will largely remain unaffected for a while. No need to panic. Of course, there will be a few players to whom fate deals a lucky hand: those companies whose CIOs already are ‘digital’ are facing enormous opportunities. Yet not so, I believe, to the extent of overthrowing the entire economic environment anytime soon.

So here’s the true learning from said CIO survey: the digital revolution is certainly already in the process of altering business models. In the long term, it will probably even transform entire industry landscapes. But it is definitely not going to change human beings. We’ll have to wait for the new generation of truly digital natives to grow up.

In any company recruiting leaders or future leaders, it is nowadays up to the HR specialists to leave their comfort zone: rather than keeping on the lookout for overly distinct skill sets, which in my view is but a legacy attitude from the 1980s anyway, it might be a better idea to focus on promising talent who bring the 5C, or at least some of them.

In view of the ever-accelerating technological and societal evolution, I would even like to introduce a 6th C: Convertibility. Companies want to hire leaders who stay a while. But these must be able to adjust when the wind changes.

An innovative recruiting approach along these lines might also help solve another problem – that of the often quoted global ‘talent shortage’. It may well be that if we gave people leeway to adjust over time rather than expecting them to fulfil, from Day 1, elaborate candidate profiles rigidly cast in stone, we’d find that we have been overlooking many an uncut diamond in our quest for the perfect gem.

In any event, these considerations have let me see the current No. 1 buzzword, ‘Disruption’, in a new light. No technology is inherently disruptive. Consequently, disruption doesn’t occur over night. Disruption won’t happen until there is a sufficient number of people able to use novel technology in a game-changing manner. For them we must look for if we wish to ride, not to be drowned by, the wave of disruption.

Further reading:

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