How CIOs Can Lead Digitalization Of Consumer Products Industry

Don Gordon

If you attended CES 2017 last month or, like me, just watched the highlights, you were doubtless astounded by all the new consumer gadgets and products. There was a countertop machine that brews 5 liters of beer in a couple of hours; cordless, hands-free breast pumps; and an electric skateboard that goes up to 20 mph. (We can only hope that people have the good sense not to combine these activities.)

But for all the talk about consumer-facing digital innovations, for consumer products (CP) companies, many of the opportunities are less about product and more about business model and process. Whether it’s innovating a direct-to-consumer service or using the Internet of Things (IoT) to realize supply chain efficiencies, CIOs are expected to play a leading role in digital initiatives. How individual CIOs respond to the digital challenge will help determine their own success as well as that of their organization.

History is on the CIO’s side – but time is not

The opportunities presented by the new digital frontier are profound, and leading CP companies are beginning to respond accordingly. Those that do not risk being left out of increases in market share and consumer loyalty. In one sense, the move toward a new digital future comes at a perfect time for CIOs. As noted in a recent CIO.com article:

“In the past, the CIO and IT roles were mostly about … controlling costs, business processes [and back-office] support. … IT was never seen as a strategic part of the business. … That time is over.”

As the shift to digital accelerates, CIOs need to consider a bolder, more strategic approach to their work. This will mean asking important questions like these:

  • Are my IT goals and objectives fully aligned with the business strategy?
  • Do I have the right skills? Does my team?
  • Do I understand the emerging technologies and the best practices associated with them?
  • Is our IT function organized in order to maximize innovation?
  • How will we measure ROI?
  • Ensure continuous improvement?

What digital means for IT leaders

To take full advantage of digitalization, CP companies will need to transform business models and processes. CIOs and other IT leaders will need to adopt new roles and responsibilities. Instead of “keeping the lights on” and managing system integrations and implementations, IT leaders are expected to take a new, more strategic role in the C-suite.

Now is the time for IT leaders in CP to become digital transformation leaders, setting clear direction and objectives and articulating the linkage between overall business strategy and IT directives. This means IT leaders will need to shift away from a systems support role and take the lead in developing digital strategy. For some accustomed to a more reactive role, the change will be uncomfortable – but for those who embrace it, the rewards will be extensive.

The journey will not be without difficulty. A survey performed by EIU indicates that CP lags other industries in terms of LoB-IT collaboration on strategy. But if CP companies continue to rely solely on product innovation to drive growth, their more digitally savvy competitors will keep taking share.

A CIO road map in CP

The needs and opportunities may seem daunting, but there are some very specific steps that IT leaders in CP can and should take:

  1. Promote development of a digital vision and strategy. Most companies do not have, or have not considered, a vision for digital. CIOs must educate senior leaders and boards about the importance of digitalization, the impact on markets and the raw opportunity available.
  1. Build digital skills and capacity. CIOs have a unique advantage in digital strategy. They can begin to build the new IT platform for the new digital economy, and develop the skills to engage with the consumer.
  1. Be the architect. Apps and tools may be flashy, but the CIO should begin to hone an integrated, end-to-end process. That means taking a hard look at legacy infrastructure systems and making the bold (and often short-term expensive) choices that will clear the path for innovation.
  1. Adopt agile, flexible sourcing. To be effective, IT teams must be responsive to opportunities and demands. That means having flexible and agile operational models that can build, support, and drive digitalization.
  1. Help change the culture. Digitalization is happening at the speed of now. That means CIOs need to help organizations with internal processes that can operate in an omnichannel, consumer-focused quality-driven change process, not one that’s mired by calendars, committees, and restrictive controls.
  1. Manage risk. With the rapidity of change comes a need for a governance framework that is likely going to need to be different. Risk-averse governance can slow down innovation. CIOs need to lead a governance strategy that protects at the same time it propels.

Consumers are expecting new relationships with products. Products are still important – but today, what sets your company apart is the consumer experience you deliver. To win, you need to engage with consumers like never before. This means capitalizing on moments of opportunity to ensure better outcomes – all in a digital economy where interactions happen in an instant, decisions are made in the here and now, and insight is needed in real time.  This deep transformation in the CP industry requires a fundamental evolution in the role of the CIO and the board’s understanding of what IT now brings to the business.

For more insight on digitalization strategies, see Bringing The Four Degrees Of Digital Transformation To Life.


About Don Gordon

Don Gordon leads global Consumer Products industry marketing for SAP. Previously he led global Retail industry marketing for IBM. He lives in Philadelphia, considered by many to be the finest city on earth.