Smart CIOs understand the distinction between digital and IT

Language has always been a barrier between business and IT. For years, technical jargon protected the IT department because their business colleagues assumed they needed these well-paid experts to understand all this complexity.

More recently, that jargon has been understandably used as a stick to beat the IT team, and to justify outsourcing or reducing the influence of the department.

So history shows there can be interesting insights to be gleaned from listening to how language changes in the conversations around technology in business.

As such, there’s one linguistic nuance that has become prevalent in recent months – the distinction between digital and IT.

When business leaders talk about IT now, they tend to mean the back-office stuff – the traditional, keeping the lights on, operational technology.

But when they talk about digital, the conversation is about engaging with the mobile- and cloud-enabled digital customer; about how to be competitive in a digital world; or how can digital make us a better business.

Of course, you can’t do digital without the technology to support it – but the danger is that IT folk become increasingly excluded from the digital conversation.

There are plenty of smart CIOs who get this, and can combine the role of digital business leader and operational IT manager. These are the ones who will prosper.

But we’re also seeing the creation of a new role – chief digital officer – to structuralise the difference between IT and digital in the organisation. This, for many IT leaders, is a concern.

We’ve seen government taking a lead in this move – slowly eliminating the CIO role in preference of digital leaders supported by chief technology officers.

In many respects, this is great for the IT team – it recognises the central role of technology in being successful in a digital world.

But it’s also an obvious indictment that too many IT departments are not perceived as having the necessary skills and business/digital awareness to lead on such a company-critical task.

The digital drive is good for certain skills sets – the realisation that software is both your sales rep and your showroom means that developers are back in demand. But it’s no longer unusual for business functions to be recruiting them – and for IT budgets to be located with those digitally aware business leaders, instead of the traditional IT manager.

From a corporate perspective, all this matters little, as long as the organisation is able to move with the digital world. But for many IT managers, unable or unwilling to adapt, to evolve their skill sets, and to talk the language of digital business, it’s a serious threat.

But then again, for any IT managers who can’t make the transition, it’s an opportunity for others. Digital is the future of IT in business, and of the successful IT leader.