The evolving role of the CIO

By Chris Underwood, MD at Adastrum Consulting
Chris Underwood, MD at Adastrum Consulting author of The D Suite: Digital, Data, Disruption and Dependency discusses the everchanging role of the CIO

Since the country first went into lockdown our work, domestic and social life moved to predominantly online. As a result, our dependency on technology has deepened beyond the point of return and almost all businesses and industries are now exploiting digital tools and processes. Soon there will be no such thing as a non-digital business. The importance of the CIO role has also grown to become a highly valued part of every business. 

Prior to the pandemic, CIOs were shifting from managers of enterprise services – productivity, communications, infrastructure and desktop – to business enablers, responsible for client-facing and revenue-earning products. That evolution has also seen variations of the job title to differentiate the new business enabling technology role from the more traditional enterprise services CIO role. To emphasise the difference in mandate, organisations have started appointing for CITO (Information and Technology) or CTPO (Technology and Product) or CDTO (Digital and Technology) positions.

The catalyst for evolution

The role’s evolution has been accelerated by the digital transformations and technological innovation made in the past few years. Organisational structures and executive appointments have reflected recent advancements in data, AI, Machine Learning (ML) and automation technology. Many businesses now see themselves and their competitors as a product or technology business or through technology have changed how they attract, manage and retain their customers and so the way they manage the company has updated accordingly. 

The pandemic also greatly accelerated inevitable digital adoptions and in the past 18 months, CIOs have become instrumental in keeping businesses operational and building resilience. The effects of COVID-19 and businesses’ increasing reliance on technology has further accelerated this shift to make CIO a prominent position within a company. In Spring 2020, it is estimated that consumers and businesses leapt 5 years forward in a mere 8 weeks (McKinsey, The COVID-19 recovery will be digital, May 2020). This rate of progress has redefined the speed at which future change can happen and be successfully implemented. The pace of digital innovation and change in the marketplace has made transformation and change a never-ending journey, to succeed and retain a competitive edge, organisations require strong leadership and digital intelligence (DQ) at the helm. The CIO is perfectly positioned to manage this and further cement their organisational value. 

Making a case for digital investment

On the whole, technology leaders have been praised for implementing the digital technology that better prepared organisations to manage the fallout from coronavirus. When the pandemic hit, companies that had embraced digital innovation were quickly able to adapt to remote operations, whereas the businesses that had been reluctant to invest in technology struggled to maintain service and suffered as a result. Executives that laid the digital groundwork and successfully navigated the ambiguity and uncertainty are currently highly prized and will be rewarded with greater roles in future business planning. Yet memories can quickly fade, and CIOs must continue to prove their worth to secure buy-in for future plans.

The most effective CIOs are not just the most senior technologists in the company. They are also business strategists, agents of change, educators and the guardians of cybersecurity. As part of the technology team, they have access to companywide data which provides an exclusive overview of the business and the opportunity to deep dive into specific areas or particular processes. Smart CIOs will wield this data to reduce running costs, optimise customer experience, identify operational efficiencies and enable data driven decisions. They can also reimagine business models and processes, solve problems and create revenue-generating streams further highlighting their worth.

What’s next?

Technological disruption continues to bring about the biggest changes, opportunities and threats to our lives, health and workplaces.  Sundar Pichai, the Head of Google, recently declared that AI will have a more profound impact on humanity than fire, electricity and the internet! To keep ahead of the curve, organisations know they must invest in innovation. However, without the digital skills and DQ to work new systems and the leadership to manage them and deliver against business objectives, outlay in innovation will quickly become a source of technical debt. Transformational success is dependent on leaders’ ability to unite teams as much as their technical knowledge. Leaders of change are still leaders of people, CIOs that have developed their softer skills, as well as their digital skills, will be far more successful when it comes to implementing new ways of working.

Developing leadership behaviours including emotional intelligence (EQ) will help CIOs to build empathy and trust, which will help them to win support for the investment and change, enabling them to implement it successfully. By understanding the human impact of transition, leaders will make sure their teams’ opinions are heard and respected, which will reduce resistance to change and drive upskilling. Armed with good communication skills, CIOs will be able to speak in both the languages of data and business to sell their vision to colleagues, investors and stakeholders. Without these relationships, they will struggle to move their plans from the page to reality. 

One of the main challenges for CIOs is to build their reputation as more than “just technicians”. Roles such as Chief Digital Officers (CDO) previously emerged because traditional CIOs were not seen as agile, innovative or responsive enough to adapt. However, digital has become so prominent in business that digital strategies and business strategies will soon become one and the same thing and all executive positions, regardless of title, will encompass digital making the CDO obsolete. To retain their value, CIOs must become forward-looking visionaries. Balancing technological curiosity with business acumen to understand the benefits and threats innovation can bring to the business. CEOs don’t care about the technology itself but the impact it can have on the business, its customers and staff and the most successful CIOs think in the same way.


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