Study Shows CIOs Near Top, CHROs at Bottom of Digital Champion List

We commissioned Harvard Business Review Analytic Services to test the idea that a faster speed of digital transformation has become the new normal. Our global study found that not all digitization efforts are created equal.

What we’ve heard from our customers and partners is true: The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to speed up their digitization efforts, and this new, faster speed is becoming the norm.

However, as you’ll see in the following highlights from our “Digital Acceleration Redefines the Future of Work” study, Harvard Business Review Analytic Services found that not all digitization efforts are created equal. Enabling remote work was top of mind at the start of the pandemic, but now companies are hoping to get more business value from their acceleration efforts. And, ideally, sharpen their competitive position.

When it comes to which functional leaders are most often seen as the biggest champions of digital acceleration, not everyone in the C-suite is viewed equally. But this report verifies what many of us have felt and observed: The speed of business is getting, and will likely stay, faster. And to better understand how to get and stay ahead, we asked our research partners for insights from some of the top minds in business transformation on how to make your acceleration efforts stick.

As the key enablers of successful digital transformation projects, CIOs often find themselves making sure the business has reliable, accurate data. 

Findings Show Faster Is the New Normal

Of the 326 executives surveyed across functions, 86% say their organization accelerated its digital transformation during the pandemic. Out of those whose organizations accelerated, 91% plan to keep this faster pace as their default speed, or move even faster, for the foreseeable future. 

The authors note, though, that this “Great Acceleration” didn’t always produce the ideal results, especially in terms of productivity, scope, and speed. The authors write, “the survey reveals that not all companies were well-prepared for the digital acceleration necessary during the pandemic. Fewer than half of survey respondents (45%) strongly agree that they were able to accelerate digital initiatives and stay productive at the same time. Only one quarter of respondents strongly agree that they were able to accelerate the digitization of all the processes that they set out to digitize during the pandemic, and just 28% say they have been able to transform as fast as they needed to over the past year (28%).”

The Road Ahead for CHROs

As many other studies have noted, it looks like hybrid work—with employees spending some time in-office and the rest of their time remote—is here to stay, despite some worry that there may be manager bias against fully remote employees. The “Digital Acceleration Redefines the Future of Work” study found that slightly more than half (55%) of respondents strongly agree that their organizations will follow the hybrid work model going forward. This new way of working requires a fundamental reevaluation of how we think about the employee experience and employee personas. 

One of the experts quoted in the study, Joe Berger, senior director, digital workspace practice at World Wide Technology (WWT), says creating a well-rounded employee persona starts with understanding the daily life of a worker. 

“It’s not just about what technologies you need to use, but also what is your day like? What are the processes that this employee might be a part of?” says Berger. “The persona modeling should be around that full feature set, not just the technology applications that person might need access to.”

As Josh Bersin, a global industry analyst and president and founder of Bersin & Associates, an industry research and advisory firm, notes in the report, every function has a role in this new faster pace of business and digital initiatives. “Great companies learn that it isn’t just the tech. It isn’t just the HR; it isn’t just line of business. All three are related. And not one of them can fall behind without holding up the others,” says Bersin.

While that rings true, the report, dismayingly, found that when it comes to which member of the C-suite tends to be the biggest champion of digital acceleration, CHROs were at the very bottom of the list. 

There’s no doubt that human capital has been front and center during the pandemic, but the report theorizes that CHROs are sometimes lacking the confidence to take a strong stand when it comes to digital acceleration. 

As Nigel Guenole, director of research for the Institute of Management at Goldsmiths, University of London, says in the report, especially in light of pernicious retention issues, “Human resources professionals need to be the facilitators, who have to know the business needs and how to deliver on these goals via technology, while ensuring that the people side of the business can walk along with that.” 

How IT Leaders Can Help Maintain This Faster Pace

IT leaders are only behind the CEO—albeit by quite a bit—when it comes to how much they are seen as the champions of digital acceleration (72% CEO and 47% CIO/COO).

As the key enablers of successful digital transformation projects, CIOs often find themselves making sure the business has reliable, accurate data and the technology to use that data in a way that drives productive decision making. 

In fact, data management tools—which, among other things, provide the understanding of workflows and their business outcomes—are the top technology investment that companies are increasing over the next two years, with 52% of respondents ranking it ahead of collaboration learning tools (48%) and cloud-based platforms (43%). This data point suggests that companies rushed to move as much of their employee and customer experience online as possible, but are now looking hard at increasing productivity and profits.

Full Speed Ahead

As the report writers note, “The pandemic has forced companies to rapidly change how they do business, often for the better. The biggest challenge now is to make sure that they don’t fall back but continue accelerating.” 

Put another way, the ability to rapidly change in response to fluctuating circumstances was once seen as an ideal to aspire to, but not a matter of existential survival. And, while the study affirms what many people know from real-life experience—culture, technology, and employee experience are interdependent facets of digital acceleration—keeping all these balls in the air while continuing to move at a faster pace won’t be easy. But events have shown that complacency is no longer an option.

“Business leaders have a huge opportunity to communicate to the company, ‘You guys did this, and we're going to continue doing that,’” says Bersin. “We're not going back to the same old business before the pandemic.”

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