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Companies are eager to capitalize on the efficiencies, insights and deeper consumer connections that digital approaches offer. But the difference between merely adopting new technologies and real digital transformation is not always apparent.

CIOs are at the forefront of securing buy-in for meaningful digital investment, making clever technology choices that mitigate risk, support business goals, and foster collaboration to ensure digital solutions are integrated effectively.

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We invited 15 CIOs and senior IT leaders based in Singapore to a roundtable discussion about how they approach the integration of new digital tools with legacy systems. We asked them to reflect on the tactics, systems, processes, and talent strategies they believe are critical to ensuring future success.

The discussion revealed that CIOs face a number of challenges on the journey to a new digital-centric operating model. Many attendees highlighted that they were focused on new structures and cultural shifts designed to create improved ‘digital ecosystems’ that promote innovation.

The scale and breadth of the required change are significant. Specifically, CIOs discussed the difficulties posed by:

  • Managing a large number of projects and assessing which to prioritize;
  • Working with multiple offices across different regions with varying levels of engagement;
  • Upgrading large legacy infrastructure;
  • Aligning practices from separate businesses within a group;
  • Changing culture around new processes and managing uncertainty

One CIO from the pharmaceutical sector described the challenge facing CIOs as balancing ‘business as usual’ with innovation. They often spend more time on basics such as delivering working WiFi, which leaves less time for assessing, planning, and prioritizing the evolution to a digital business.

Transforming legacy systems while mitigating risk and ensuring security was a difficulty expressed by nearly all CIOs, including institutions that rely on trust, such as banks and insurers, but also companies in the construction, utilities, asset management, and health industries.

Knowledge gaps and expectations of other executives were seen as problematic. Many CIOs felt that colleagues lacked the technical understanding required, and as a result:

  • Were impatient about the speed and progress of transformation;
  • Did not involve IT and digital teams effectively or early enough;
  • Were unduly concerned and focused on issues such as cybersecurity;
  • Were swayed by ‘hype’ around new technologies rather than real business needs.

The CIO of a large insurer said, “there is always an expectation of speed from the business, but then they involve IT at the end, not the beginning – so IT tends to just get ‘quick and dirty’ jobs to achieve.” A CIO from a large asset management group of companies said the goal should be to “create new value, not new ‘things.’”

The level of support from executives representing other lines of business makes the road from testing to implementation unclear for some CIOs. CIOs from several major insurers and a government agency pointed to the fact that digital teams were adept at testing and piloting innovations, but run up against governance, security, and cultural issues when it comes to enterprise-wide implementation.

Across the board, CIOs agreed that technology choices should be instigated by a genuine understanding of customer problems. They felt that if innovations do not solve a real customer problem or provide demonstrated return on investment to the business, they become token rather than a true driver of growth.

A number of the CIOs in attendance were of the opinion that greater business knowledge needs to be available within digital and IT teams. Challenges raised around building an ideal team included:

  • Doing more with fewer people requires evolving roles;
  • Hard to find people with both domain knowledge, digital skills, and business savvy;
  • Difficult to find and maintain a pipeline of talent in the region.

CIOs are cognisant of the steps required to improve the digital maturity of their organisation and identified a wealth of opportunities. To realize these opportunities, it was suggested that businesses need to:

  • Focus on customer problems and experiences to inform technology choices;
  • Be more attuned to consumer’s desire and capacity to uptake different technologies;
  • Decentralize and enable distributed development through a standardized approach;
  • Deliver IT-as-a-service consistently through standardized APIs and containerization;
  • Improve partnering between CIO and roles such as the COO;
  • Share knowledge internally and facilitate digital ways of working to change perceptions.

Across all industries, CIOs are embracing or planning to use a range of new technologies. These include: multi-cloud application Platform as a Service (PaaS); chatbots; machine learning and AI platforms; blockchain and digital payment innovations, as well as the Internet of Things (IoT).

Many CIOs are already adopting more agile testing and deployment models, or team structures. For instance, two CIOs specifically mentioned a switch to CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous deployment), and many mentioned that they are operating smaller teams, concentrating on portfolio focus areas, and piloting initiatives to prove a business case.

At one point in the discussion, however, CIOs expressed the need for caution in regard to a flat structure with multiple, small teams—suggesting there needs to be enough oversight to avoid silos and meet the broader need for cross-team pollination and C-level strategic input.

Other innovative approaches in progress included:

  • Working with the organization’s agents/partners to leverage existing consumer-facing digital platforms (insurance industry);
  • Creating an intelligent ecosystem of integrated infrastructure with optimized digital services that can be consumed and adapted by an organisation’s various business arms;
  • Reducing the number and complexity of products and associated applications. For example, one banking CIO reduced a six-month timeframe to provision and test systems for new products by making the API adaptable for different businesses, without multiple versions.

Digital transformation requires organizational foresight, collaboration, and support. Cultural roadblocks experienced by many CIOs also accentuate implementation and talent shortfalls. As one insurance company CIO suggested, without internal support mechanisms, digital initiatives cannot be sustained. They asked: “What if it fails? Who is accountable for delivery and success?”

Despite these questions remaining unanswered for a number of CIOs, collectively they remain steadfast in championing advanced digital approaches and models that will deliver value. It’s also clear that CIOs are increasingly sophisticated collaborators when it comes to strategy—striving to encourage their organizations to focus on consumer and internal users’ needs, while tempering the tendency to innovate first and ask questions later.

Learn more about the challenges CIOs face when executing on digital transformation, and what solutions they should adopt to achieve their goals.