Charles AraujoLearn more about MES Spring 2019 keynote speaker Charles Araujo as he answers questions from The Channel Company senior vice president of event content and strategy Robert DeMarzo.

Charles Araujo authored the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on digital leadership who shares his message of hope about the future of digital enterprises and what it means for everyone. Araujo is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Digital Transformation, a sought-after keynote speaker and advisor and consultant to enterprise organizations and technology providers. He is a regular contributor to both CIO Insight magazine and InformationWeek and has been quoted in or published in magazines, blogs and websites including Time, CIO, CIO & Leader, IT Business Edge, TechRepublic, Computerworld, USA Today and Forbes.

Araujo is a keynote speaker for our upcoming Midsize Enterprise Summit event, which takes place May 5-7 in Orlando. Araujo recently answered a series of questions about his keynote and the importance of digital transformation.

You are delivering a keynote at the upcoming MES Conference on unleashing creativity and innovation. What makes this such a critical time to discuss this message to midmarket CIOs?

My tennis coach used to tell me that the middle was no man’s land. That you either played at the net or at the baseline, but never from the middle of the court. I find that this is true in a lot of areas of life — playing in the middle is often a losing proposition. This is starting to become true as well for the entire mid-market as we enter the Digital Era. On the one hand, you have large enterprises that have resources to invest and treasure troves of data to work from, and an entire generation of digital-native startups on the other ready to disrupt every market sector. The challenge for mid-market CIOs in this environment is to overcome this squeeze and, instead, leverage this environment and the changes taking place to their advantage. That will demand that they unleash the creativity and innovation within their organizations.

Business transformation sounds so daunting. Are there small steps tech leaders can take to make a difference?

I have long said that there is no such thing as organizational transformation — just personal transformation multiplied across an organization. I would argue that despite the flashy tales of digital and business transformation, most of them are smoke and mirrors. Real, deep, meaningful transformation makes for a much less sexy story. It ONLY happens in small steps over long periods of time. That said, there is no cookie-cutter approach. If you’re looking for the “3 Steps You Must Take Right Now to Transform Your Business,” I’m going to disappoint you. Instead, organizations need to be thinking in terms of building capabilities and in fostering the skills within their organizations that will support those capabilities. This includes simple sounding things like being curious, creating deep levels of engagement and mindfulness. These are the things that leaders should focus on now.

As someone who has been speaking about digital transformation for a long time, where would you say U.S. businesses are on this path?

There’s no question that the U.S. leads the world in applying technology, driving productivity and similar characteristics. In this respect, U.S. firms are out in front. The challenge is that it’s beginning to bump into some cultural challenges. The driver of business value has shifted from optimization to the experience — customer, employee and partner — and that starts running smack into corporate cultures that are infatuated with productivity and efficiency measures. It is going to be those countries and companies that can embrace (and reorient around) a more experiential and humanistic culture that will be able to see this through to the end. And, interestingly, that’s the great opportunity for mid-market organizations, in my opinion.

How are midmarket companies doing at transforming themselves vs. Fortune 500 or small businesses?

First off, I need to say that my response here is purely anecdotal. That said, if I was grading mid-market transformational efforts, it would probably be a C-minus in general terms. There are always examples that disprove this, but while most large enterprise executives are rapidly going all-in and are beginning to make bet-the-company decisions to stave off disruption and transform themselves, most mid-market organization are being far too timid. This is unfortunate and ironic, because I think we’re in the midst of a fundamental shift that creates a massive opportunity for mid-market firms. As I mentioned before, as the focus of value shifts from optimization to the experience, and as culture becomes a primary driver of this experiential shift, mid-market organizations may be best positioned to lead this transition. The historical, cultural and technological debt will hang around the neck of large enterprises for some time. While they may have the will, they must turn very large ships, very quickly — and then keep doing so. Even the best will have trouble with this.

While mid-market firms have some of the same issues, the pathway is much more manageable and sustainable. But they must act now.

What got you interested in digital transformation and dedicating your career to it?

Well, that’s a long story, but the short version is that I fell into it! I’m an IT guy at my core. I ran technical ops for a $1B healthcare company a little over 20 years ago and then spent most of my career advising enterprise executives on various types of transformational initiatives. About 8 years ago, I started seeing that things like the consumerization of IT, the cloud, and what I call criticality creep was changing everything about IT — and that IT leaders weren’t adapting well. It led me to write my first book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. And that changed my life. I started getting invitations to speak all over the world about the future of IT, which eventually led to a speaking tour through New Zealand where one of the events I spoke at was the Digital Disruption Conference, hosted by the U.S. Embassy and the Auckland University of Technology. Giving that speech made me realize that these forces were affecting more than just IT — that this was really about digital and business transformation. It’s been my focus since.

What is the most misunderstood part of digital transformation?

That it’s about technology. It’s not. It’s about re-envisioning everything from business models, operating models, the employee and partner experience, to the nature of work itself around delivering a customer experience that differentiates you in the market. Technology obviously underpins all of that, but if you’re focused on the technology, you’re missing the boat.

Given their titles, senior IT leaders and CIOs should own digital transformation. Do you agree and what should they understand about that role?

Not entirely. First and foremost, digital transformation must be about the transformation of the entire business. It HAS to be business-led. That said, because technology is such a core enabler, and because of the CIO’s unique horizontal positioning within an organization, they are often the best person to spearhead a transformational effort. The great risk, however, is that it is seen as a technology project. The moment that happens — either that it’s a ‘project’ or that it’s about ’technology’ — the game’s up. If a CIO cannot lead a transformational effort from a business perspective, they should take a back seat so they can focus on the technology side of it.

Finally, does digital transformation ever end or is it just a continuous process?

No. Welcome to the new normal.