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Who is leading digital transformation? Not CIOs, job ads suggest

A study of UK job adverts suggests that employers are not looking to CIOs to lead digital transformation, writes guest author David Harding. Why not?

By david j-harding

Leading digital transformation requires a broad and unique mix of capabilities and knowledge. Suitable candidates need to establish a never-ending programme of transformation, constantly developing their organisation’s digital maturity in order to extract business value from their data. This requires technology expertise, business acumen, and the ability to manage a complex network of stakeholders both within and outside the organisation.

So who has these capabilities? The chief information officer would be an obvious candidate. The role of the CIO has certainly expanded since its inception in the 1980s, from “keeper of the infrastructure, under the CFO, to an executive managing the organisation’s information with a seat at the executive table”. (Fortino, 2008).

leading digital transformation

A study of UK job adverts suggests that employers are not looking to CIOs to lead digital transformation. (Photo by Kpatyhka/Shutterstock)

However, my company’s research suggests that this progress may have halted with the advent of digital technology. Employers do not appear to be seeking CIOs that can lead their digital transformations, it suggests.

The Harding Method analysed 3,000 job adverts for CIO positions in the UK from a variety of well-known recruiters, to determine what skills and capabilities employers are looking for in their IT leaders.

Two striking features about the advertised roles leapt out immediately. Firstly, even though they were described as CIO positions, many of the adverts were in fact for IT managers, IT directors or CTOs. And secondly, out of all the CIO adverts we analysed, a mere handful hinted at a reporting line – none of them mentioned it explicitly. Among these were several odd examples, including a supposed CIO role, paying a six-figure salary, that required hands-on experience of the Python programming language.

To take a closer look at the requirements of these roles, we analysed the text and identified 3,030 phrases that occurred repeatedly throughout the ads. We sorted these phrases into five categories: purpose, profile, behaviours, skills and knowledge.

Given the high priority that organisations have given to digital transformation in recent years, we expected that this analysis would reveal high demand for experience in digital transformation and with related technologies, such as cloud, big data, and the internet of things. But this was not the case.

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The table below shows the most common requirements in each category.

What does this data tell us? Firstly, phrases containing the word ‘digital’, such as ‘digital business’ or ‘digital development’, counted for less than 3% of the overall phrase count, suggesting that many organisations do not fully understand the relevance of digital technology to their business.

Secondly, it indicates that employers are not looking for CIOs that have the breadth of skills and responsibilities that digital transformation demands. The required skills and knowledge imply that CIOs are confined to managing IT operations and have little to no involvement in business innovation or developing the customer experience, for example. Nor is there much mention of the personal capabilities required to manage constant change and ever-evolving expectations.

Lastly, it suggests that organisations prize seniority and rank above experience with relevant technologies and fast-changing environments.

This makes for sobering reading when one considers the strategic significance that companies are placing on digital transformation following the pandemic. In PwC’s latest global CEO survey, more than 80% of chief executives said they will increase their investment in digital transformation this year – more than in any other area.

And it prompts two questions. Why, despite their experience in technology leadership, are CIOs not being primed to captain digital transformation? And if not the CIO, then who?

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