IT Leadership is more than simply keeping the lights on

The job of chief information officer (CIO) is increasingly challenging in this era of digital transformation, but those who can rapidly shift their focus to innovation and embrace leadership will be the ones that thrive.

The CIO role is rapidly changing to absorb that of Chief Innovation Officer. Thanks to increased competition, tighter budgets and the rapid adoption of IT, the importance assigned to innovation has never been more important.

CEOs are increasingly viewing CIOs as responsible for pushing forward digital transformation. This is helping them step into the limelight, away from managing back office technologies. In a recent Gartner study, nearly 40 percent of CIOs said they are now responsible for digital transformation and 34 percent said they are responsible for innovation. Taking up the reins in both these areas is a major step in establishing a digital leadership role in the C-suite.

“Expecting the CIO to be the prime mover in digital is a fairly sudden and major change of expectation and emphasis,” said Mark Raskino, vice president and Gartner Fellow, who said the role of CIO-as-chief-innovator is gaining momentum. The CIO has moved from being an IT provider to that of an innovator of digital products to drive the business forward.

CIOs need to take up the gauntlet

CIOs must be prepared to drive change in the business, or sit back and watch it wilt, according to an IDC report The Changing Role of IT Leadership: CIO Perspectives for 2016. Through 2018, two-thirds of CIOs have jettisoned 2D thinking and embraced what IDC calls “leading in 3D”, a leadership model for digital transformation. Whilst 2D thinking compartmentalizes the management of innovation and operations into separate, unlinked boxes, 3D thinking requires CIOs to simultaneously innovate, integrate and incorporate.

CIOs must have the ability to innovate in partnership with business units to create digital innovations. At the same time, they need to be confident enough to integrate new technology platforms into stable business services. They are also pivotal in incorporating new skills, techniques and culture into the heart of the IT organization.

IT leadership is essential in overseeing the digital transformation process, because they can link business and IT innovations to operations through a carefully planned, consistent and well governed transitional environment.

“CIOs who stay operational will find themselves further marginalized over the next three years. For these executives to stay relevant, they must shift their focus to transformation and innovation and incorporating those innovations into their stable infrastructures. Just ‘keeping the lights on’ will lead the business to find other sources for technology leadership and innovation,” said Mike Jennett, Vice President of Research for Enterprise Mobility in IDC’s IT Executive Program.

“The 3rd Platform, which powers digital transformation, requires that CIOs and technology executives innovate, integrate, and incorporate at the same time. Anything less is kicking the can down the road,” added Serge Findling, vice president of research with IDC’s IT Executive Program (IEP).

Upskilling is needed

The opportunity and scope for CIOs is undoubtedly great and there are aspirations out there to match. However, many still need to hone their skills to take on the expanding role of the CIO. According to a recent Deloitte CIO study 2015, 93 percent of UK CIOs surveyed acknowledged they have a skills gap – with the biggest being in the ability to influence internal stakeholders, talent management and technology vision and leadership.

“It is rare to find business leaders who take big risks, have the ability to craft a long term vision and possess the dedication needed to manage day-to-day operations. But that is exactly the expectation of today’s CIOs,” concluded the Deloitte CIO study.

Change is inevitable

To retain a competitive edge in the rapidly changing landscape of digital transformation, the IT organization and the CIO must themselves undergo a metamorphosis from a focus on operations and service brokering to one of partnership, innovation and instigator of new, digitally-enabled products and services. “While many CIOs have embraced this change, there is still a large percentage that will benefit from evaluating their organizations as well as their relationship with their business counterparts as they continue on this journey,” added Jennett.

The CIO is now a strategic asset in the C-suite and the role goes way beyond break-fixing IT to finding new ways to use technology to make money for the business as a whole. CIOs who add to their job description that of “chief innovation officer” will be the ones that garner success for themselves and their organizations.

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