June 14, 2016
The Emergence of the Digital Unifier
By: Maria (Ergueta) McGinley

Going digital has blurred the line between business and IT within organizations, creating complex, interdisciplinary challenges and the need for generalists capable of addressing those challenges. The result? The emergence of a new kind of leader, the Digital Unifier. But looking at organizations where these new leaders are manifesting, they’re emerging from IT faster than the business side. Understanding why and how to encourage development of this type of leader across the enterprise will be critical to every company’s success.

Home Depot is trying to build your smart home while Caterpillar is enabling autonomous mines: digital is now firmly embedded in every business, and the impact of its growth will continue to accelerate. In Accenture’s 2016 Technology Vision Survey, IT and business executives agreed that in the next three years, the percentage of jobs that have a digital component in their organizations is expected to grow from 50 percent to 58 percent.i  Surveyed IT and business executives also agreed that over the next three years, the pace of technology will change in their industry at an unprecedented rate.

With digital playing such a huge role throughout organizations, past approaches that kept business and IT colleagues siloed are a path to failure. IT and business executives must collaborate more closely than ever before in order to understand and address the challenges – and opportunities – presented by rapid technological change. At a recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, George Westerman, Research Scientist for the MIT Center for Digital Business, said “Business and IT executives drive digital transformation better together than they do apart.”ii

One way that executives from IT and business organizations are building a bridge between functions is with the emergence of new roles like the Chief Digital Officer (CDO). At leading organizations such as Starbucks and GE, the CDO must take a cross-functional approach, spanning traditional IT and other, newer technologies, as well as marketing, sales, and other functions—all while they maintain intimate connections to their company’s business goals. But this isn’t just for the top ranks. IT and business executives agree that the proportion of generalists will be much greater than specialists in just three years.iii

Industry leaders such as Lufthansa are already embracing these changes as the company seeks to improve its customer experience. Viewing the CX discipline as a driver for organizational change, Lufthansa understands how the organization has to work together across all its functions to ensure there’s a great CX across the entire customer journey.iv This type of effort is only possible with the emergence of digital unifiers, who bring the ability to see the big picture and synthesize ideas to drive innovation and disruption. Embracing these unifiers will let digital companies emerge as leaders themselves.

The emergence of the Digital Unifier does not dictate that IT will merge into the existing business organization. But at the top ranks, IT executives are rethinking how technology fits into and is shaping their organization’s overall business strategy. These IT leaders have become the trusted Digital Unifier that, during the era of digital transformations, had to take a crash course on the inner workings and business models driving their organizations. By developing a better understanding of business functions, IT-born Digital Unifiers were able to accomplish more for their organization, like being able to help identify and automate repeatable more mundane tasks. The result? Over the past two years, 49 percent of IT executives and 36 percent of business executives reported extensive cost savings of at least 16-20 percent from automating systems and processes.v

When compared to their IT counterparts, business leaders are not preparing themselves to lead organizations as Digital Unifiers. The Accenture 2016 Technology Vision Survey found that when comparing 3,100 IT and business executives’ responses on cross-functionality and specialization, a large delta existed between business directors’ views and the rest of the executives (other groups included business C-Suite + IT directors and IT C-suite). The divide wasn’t always a split of business vs. IT perspective or knowledge: in fact, many responses suggest that the C-suite and director-level IT leadership have heavily influenced C-suite business executives, leaving business directors behind. The three most significant differences between business directors and the rest of Business and IT executives were:

  1. Business directors lag significantly behind the rest when anticipating making investments in AI-related technology over the next 3

  2. While C-level business executives are automating tasks/processes in their organization to the similar extent as IT executives, business directors lag further behind.vii

  3. Though over 79 percent for each category of IT director level executives, IT C-level, and business C-level executives think that the Industrial Internet and Internet of Things will cause significant change or complete transformations of their industry, just 69 percent of business directors agree.viii

Technology is of course playing an ever increasing role in every digital organization’s successful business strategy. But the lag between non C-suite business executives and C-suite business + tech executives must be addressed for Digital Unifiers to emerge from both groups and lead thriving organizations.

Our survey found that IT and business executives agree that they have extensive knowledge about emerging technology, and when it comes to decision making, more IT executives (81 percent) vs. business executives (62 percent) said they are also a decision maker for emerging tech in their organization.ix Industry agrees with the need for such knowledge: As companies continue to rely upon technology to help differentiate themselves in the marketplace, tech budgets remain on an upward trajectory. And the money is beginning to follow. After years of little to no IT budget growth, two years ago Computerworld’s annual Forecast survey of IT executives found that 43 percent of the 194 respondents said that they expected their IT budgets to increase, on average by 13.1 percent. That was up from 36 percent in 2013’s study. The trend continued in the most recent Forecast survey, with half (46 percent) of the 2016 respondents indicating that their technology spending will increase in 2016, on average by 14.7percent. Close to an equal number (42 percent) reported that their technology spending will remain the same, with only 12 percent anticipating a decrease in IT budgets.

As digital transformations become a top strategic priority, Digital Unifiers are poised to move fully to the center of the business in 2016 and beyond. CIOs and their tech organizations are well positioned to drive that change, thanks to IT budget growth and a pronounced shift toward strategic spending. The expansion of IT’s dominating influence looks to continue. An overwhelming number of Vision survey respondents, 88 percent, agree the IT organization needs to broaden its scope and keep pace with evolving IT needs.x  IT is expected to again kick up spending on security tools, customer-facing technologies and information exchange/collaboration technologies.xi

Going digital has blurred the line between business and IT and created the emergence of Digital Unifiers—but they’re coming from the IT organizations more often than the business side. Organizations must strive to encourage greater collaboration between IT and business functions at every level, and address the business directors’ lag. Understanding the gap and enabling executives from IT and business to both emerge as Digital Unifiers will be critical to every company’s success.

iSurvey, q16, q17
ii2015 MIT CIO Symposium
iiiSurvey, q21
vSurvey, q6
viSurvey, q8
viiSurvey, q3
viiiSurvey, q37
ixSurvey, qd5
x“Calibrating Multi-Speed IT for the Varied Demands of a Multi-Speed Business,” Accenture, 2015.

Maria (Ergueta) McGinley is a lead for the Accenture Technology Vision, advising clients on the impact of technological change. See the Accenture Technology Vision 2016 here.

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