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Creating and maintaining digital policies is, by nature, a team endeavor. After all, it’s hard to think of a single aspect of modern business that hasn’t been impacted — if not completely disrupted — by the digital revolution. So coming up with policies that make sense and will actually be used requires input from many functional areas.

Somebody, however, has to be the owner. Someone has to lead the effort. Frequently, that role falls defacto to the CIO as head of IT. But can the CIO own digital policy?

The CIO’s changing role

It makes sense to conclude that the executive responsible for technology should also be responsible for policies governing the use of that technology. But there’s a catch: Neither the technology nor the related digital policies mean much if they don’t act to support organizational goals and strategies.

Unfortunately, many CIOs haven’t been involved in strategy at that level. Historically, organizations have seen IT as a tactical area that executes strategies determined by others. If that’s been your experience and you’re suddenly asked to be in charge of digital policies, you may feel like a wedding planner who’s just been asked to choose your client’s future spouse.

A wedding planner’s role, after all, is to tell the bride what’s possible — presenting her with a list of options for locations, dates, menus, entertainment, etc. — and to then make sure those choices are carried out to perfection. Choosing the groom, on the other hand, requires a much deeper knowledge of the bride than most wedding planners have.

That’s the same reason a lot of CIOs struggle when it comes to leading the charge for comprehensive digital policies. Technical expertise isn’t enough anymore. You also need things like an intimate knowledge of the company’s strategic goals for digital, legal expertise, knowledge of risk and compliance, a vision of how to weave all the functional silos together in unified pursuit of those goals, and the leadership/people skills needed to mitigate conflicts about resources, territories, and egos. Alternatively, you at least need the ability to form strong organizational partnerships that can help assemble all of these capabilities.

The good news is that it’s not all that hard to get there.

Preparing for success

If you’re a CIO who’s been tapped to head up digital policies, how can you lay a foundation for success? Let’s start by taking a look at what you naturally bring to the table: technical expertise. An understanding of digital technology is invaluable for the role of digital steward, because you have to know what’s possible before you can make policy about it. And no one is in a better position to do that than you are.

So it then becomes a matter of getting up to speed on the strategic side of things.

The key is to approach the job with the right mindset, and that means not only focusing on the small (IT) picture but also on how each functional area plays a part. It means being able to weigh the tradeoffs between a CMO who wants to collect as much customer data as possible and a general counsel who’s worried about the risk of data breaches, and a CFO who must calculate and budget for the cost of protecting personally identifiable information. It means being able to assess the value of user-generated content — because engaged customers are good for the bottom line — and compare it to any liabilities that content may present.

You don’t need to have all the answers, but you do need to ask the right questions. That can include things like:

  • How can digital align with our organization’s strategy and support its mission?
  • What metrics should we capture so that we can understand what, if any, return on investment is being realized?
  • How will we know whether we are successful at balancing opportunities with risks?
  • What is our digital risk tolerance? How aggressive do we want to be?
  • Do we have the right sponsorship and advocacy for the policy effort? If not, who can help us get it?
  • How much effort and resources are we willing to allocate in order to balance out the risks and rewards of exploiting digital toward business goals?

The key is to understand that, while your technical expertise is incredibly valuable in this role, it isn’t the purpose of the role. The purpose is to help your organization maximize digital opportunities while minimizing digital risks. When it comes to a digital policy steward, business acumen comes first. Technical expertise, while important, takes a partnering role.