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Out with the old: The evolving role of the CIO

Out with the old: The evolving role of the CIO

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The CIO role has changed somewhat over the past year – becoming more strategic, with responsibilities and priorities aligned with innovation and business growth. Peter Hannaford, Senior Partner, Portman Partners, discusses the need for immediate transformational change within an organisation, and how the CIO can help to drive this change.

It wasn’t so long ago that the CIO was known as the trusted guardian of a firm’s IT infrastructure, with responsibility for the implementation, management and use of computer and Information Technology. A Deloitte survey in 2017 reported that 58% of CIOs said ‘helping in business innovation’ was a core expectation of the IT organisation. However, this ‘business innovation’ was rarely defined or understood, but the role was becoming more strategic and effectively had three main objectives:

  • Managing innovation in technologies – like storage and the cloud; facilitating the delivery of solutions much more quickly, thereby creating agility for the business; shifting IT spending from capital expenditures to operating expenditures; and positively impacting the bottom line.
  • Enabling the workforce – With technology and software to assist them in performing their jobs, enhancing productivity and improving decision-making.
  • Introducing disruptive innovation – to improve customer experience, Digital Transformation, and end-user products and services and therefore win business from competitors.

The arrival of COVID-19 changed everything, pushing worldwide Internet traffic through the roof and increasing our reliance on digital infrastructure like never before. From hyper hub to the Edge, digital infrastructure provided the ability to move our workforce from office to home; facilitated home education for students; enabled supply chain agility for stores, manufacturing, utilities, petrol stations, transportation, and the like, supporting firms, governments, hospitals, police, and the military in their efforts. In addition, it aided scientists in vital modelling and forecasting work, and right up to the Edge, Internet-enabled sensors and devices worked continuously in hospitals, helping keep the sickest among us alive.

McKinsey reported that we leaped forward five years in consumer and business digital adoption in just around eight weeks. Banks transitioned to remote sales and service teams, launching new services allowing customers to make flexible payment arrangements for loans and mortgages. Retail stores shifted to online ordering and delivery as their primary business. Schools in many areas moved to online learning and digital classrooms. Doctors and hospitals used video conferencing for appointments and diagnoses. Manufacturers quickly developed plans for ‘lights out’ factories and supply chains. There was explosive, unprecedented growth in technology innovations and customers wanted more.

Faced with continued uncertainty, companies now need their executives to be strong, agile and technology-focused resilient leaders who can motivate and inspire their workforce to steer through today’s turbulent waters. And, when we finally emerge from this dark tunnel, we will need leaders who can innovate, stimulate and create environments where teams of self-motivated employees thrive and grow. Now is the time for immediate transformational, not incremental, change. And who is better placed than the CIO to help drive this change?

For data centre operator CIOs, the job is doubly difficult, as often, the digital infrastructure they are responsible for is also shared by their firm’s customers. This complex balancing act drives innovation, but with the absolute non-negotiable requirement of maintaining 100% availability. In addition, the increasing focus on climate change stresses that all must be delivered within a zero-carbon environment.

Louise Bunting, Global CIO of Yondr Group, a hyperscale data centre developer, believes the role of technology is integral to supporting carbon net-zero data centres. Her remit includes IT, Value Creation, Sustainability and Quality, which reflects the need for technology to drive Digital Transformation, sustainability and continuous improvement.  

“The CIO’s role is now heavily orientated towards identifying where change is needed, navigating how solutions can form, and owning the delivery,” said Bunting. “We have been successful working through where we need consistency through automation, where we need enriched data to make better decisions, and then how we use that data to target emissions reductions. We have lots of innovations in the pipeline and I have really loved trading knowledge on sustainability for technology with our sustainability experts. This type of multi-functional team working is fun, productive and we all benefit.”

As the economy recovers, demand will be unpredictable and uneven across geographies, industry verticals and customer segments. As a result, balancing supply with demand will be critical, especially while keeping costs and carbon output to a minimum. A further complicating factor is that the increasing use and reliance on our digital infrastructure makes cyberattacks more likely.

So the big question is whether your ‘old’ CIO will be able to morph into the ‘new’ CIO, or whether you’ll need to embark on a search for a new one.

  • Old CIOs were the trusted operators
  • New CIOs are agents of change
  • Old CIOs were responsible for IT budgets, availability, crisis management and software and hardware implementation and upgrades
  • New CIOs still have these responsibilities with the addition of innovation, cloud adoption, transforming the workforce, protecting the organisation from cyberattacks and delivering against the business strategy.

According to IDG, as reported in its 2020 State of the CIO Executive Summary, 22% of businesses surveyed expected their CIOs to take the lead on revenue growth initiatives. The ‘C’ in ‘CIO’ now truly means the CIO is a very senior member of the firm, with around 50% reporting directly to the CEO. The job has become very strategic, with responsibilities and priorities related to innovation and business growth.

So, what does the new CIO look like? What skills will be necessary for great performance? The old CIO was a technology specialist. The new CIO is a business leader with appropriate skills to match, delivering a balance of business innovation and operational excellence. CIOs are no longer fighting for a place in the boardroom, instead, they’ve earned their rightful place there.

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