Beyond IT: why the CIO must now be a motivator, innovator and entrepreneur

The role of the chief information officer (CIO) is becoming less technology-focused. What CIOs are currently responsible for and how that may change in the coming years is constantly in flux. How will the CIO’s skill set and personality need to change in the future to help them do their jobs to the best of their ability?

Traditionally, the CIO’s role could be summarized as being responsible for digital transformation and in charge of all the IT in an organization. But, as digital technology has become the de facto engine for business growth and enhancing customer experience has become essential, the role has had to evolve. Lots of CIOs got their jobs when the position was primarily a “command and control” role, to oversee what technology kit (if any) was given out to company staff. Now CIOs need to be more cross-functional and work in collaborative ways with business units, other C-level execs and project teams.

How does the job of CIO break down now?

According to CIO Magazine in their 2019 State of the CIO survey, cybersecurity remains the biggest use of a CIO’s time today. When asked how they currently spend their time, 51% of CIOs said security management, 47% said “aligning IT initiatives with business goals,” 42% said “improving IT operations and systems performance,” 39% said “implementing new systems and architecture,” and 39% said “driving business innovation.” So far, so traditional.

But times are changing, and so are the demands on a CIO’s time – at least if they want their company to be successful. CIOs who want to stay ahead of the game must now possess, or develop, other skills on top of just being technologically savvy. Digital is now all-pervasive at every level of a company, and CIOs need to be able to bring their digital expertise to bear on the organization’s processes, products, systems and direction.

What is changing?

As a counterpoint to the above CIO Magazine question, CIOs were asked where they most expect to spend their time in the next three years. The area that previously ranked fifth, “driving business innovation,” this time came out on top, at 37%. This was followed in order of priority by “developing and refining business strategy,” “identifying opportunities for competitive differentiation,” “developing new go-to-market strategies and technologies,” and “implementing new systems and architecture,” respectively. The first three of those could easily be applied to the role of a chief marketing officer (CMO), rather than a CIO.

What this means in reality is that the role of the CIO is evolving beyond recognition. Now CIOs must manage IT-powered changes in the organization while also being able to lead these changes from a business perspective. “The companies that are winning in the market are not asking IT to keep the lights on,” says Steve Bates, Global Lead, CIO Advisory Center of Excellence at KPMG. “The importance of technology in driving growth and reducing risk is fully recognized in the boardroom.”

There is another aspect of the CIO job that is changing, and that is the company’s employees themselves. Employees now comprise Millennials and Generation Z, who are more expectant and more technology-powered than their older colleagues. They expect the workplace to meet them on their own digital terms. At the same time, digital technologies have become vital to doing business and central to pretty much any scheme or project. So IT departments, and by extension CIOs, have more pressure on them to deliver and lead than before.

As companies embrace digital transformation, so must CIOs

Collaboration is a central element of digital transformation and an aspect of the job that CIOs will need to develop. Whether in terms of ecosystems of partners at the corporate level, or internally between project teams and employees, collaboration has become vital. So as teams become more collaborative, CIOs need to transform their own personalities and ways of working to embrace this progression.

The IDC FutureScape: Worldwide CIO Agenda 2020 Predictions report predicts that by 2023, 65% of CIOs will be entrepreneurial leaders who drive enterprise-wide collaboration and innovation. Co-innovation will also be a central element of the CIO skill set moving forward. According to the IDC, 40% of CIOs will co-lead innovation in their organizations. CIOs should be well-placed for this shift in the role, since they bring long-term experience and knowledge of digital technologies to the table.

But past that, their focus now needs to be on how their businesses work and where innovation, collaboration and other post-digital skills can be brought to bear, underpinned by digital tools. Andy Rowsell-Jones, VP and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner, says: “Simply being digital isn’t really going to cut it anymore. Forty-one per cent of EMEA CIOs are already running mature digital businesses, up from 35% last year. It’s the coming turns that are the problem, not digitization. No one is immune from economic, geopolitical, technical or societal turns, which are likely to be more common in 2020 and beyond. These turns can take different forms and can disrupt an organization’s abilities in many ways.”

Digital thinking is about culture, not just technology

Technology is the fundamental driver in all this enterprise change, and without the big recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and more, we would not be having the discussion about where the CIO fits into the modern organization. But the answer to where the CIO fits best now is really all about the company’s culture: the modern-day CIO has to focus on their own attitude and the attitudes and behaviors of employees to drive change and be a leader.

Gartner predicts that by 2021, CIOs will be as responsible for culture change as chief HR officers. They are already driving their organizations’ digital agendas, building cross-functional teams, keeping people engaged and creating an innovation culture.

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Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.