Rise of the Chief Innovation Officer – leading the way to transformational innovation

Questionable or confusing job titles have long provided fleeting office lunch-break entertainment. A quick search online brings up innumerable lists, featuring such classics as: Senior Information Adviser (otherwise known as a librarian), Wet Leisure Assistant (lifeguard), Ideation Director (advertising) and Chief Evangelist (someone in financial services apparently).

Not long ago, ‘Chief Innovation Officer’ would have featured fairly highly. However, due to greater competition, tightened budgets and new technology, the importance assigned to innovation as a legitimate and vital business process has been elevated in recent years. This has placed a new found importance of whoever’s responsibility it is to ensure innovation is being encouraged and helping deliver results.

More for less please

Globalisation, the recession and the fact consumers simply have more information available to them has certainly created a more crowded and competitive business landscape. Companies are under huge pressure to evolve at pace, stay ahead on a realistic budget and squeeze as much as possible out of what they’ve got.

To ensure they stay ahead of the game, businesses must be constantly innovating. Take Amazon as the ultimate example; the company joined the internet revolution in 1998 as a simple online book seller before constantly redeveloping (e.g., introducing next-day delivery) and reinventing itself (entering the tablet market with Kindle Fire) to become the all-encompassing e-retail giant it is today.

> See also: Changing role: the CIO as transformer

To ensure constant progress, decision makers within companies must ask the right questions about the current state of the organisation, the industry and where they are both heading – seemingly obvious analysis many businesses fail to do adequately.

Finding answers to these questions, and solutions to the issues they raise, is even less frequently mastered. This process extends beyond the decision makers or boardroom, and its success relies on the effective use of an already existing asset of the organisation – its people.

Corporate responsibility

With the case for innovation made, who at the top is responsible for ensuring the infrastructure and procedures are in place to help foster innovation and ensure the company is using every possible avenue to maximise progress?

Traditionally, CEOs are responsible for business direction and strategy, CIOs for IT and information management and CFOs for cost management and budgeting. Within business departments, incremental innovation is common but, especially in large or diverse organisations, someone is needed to manage the transformational strategic innovation that straddles the entire business, who has buy-in from CEO and can galvanise the whole workforce.

It is here where room has appeared in the C-suite for an executive who links the traditional CEO, CFO and CIO roles – step forward the Chief Innovation Officer (CINO). The CINO has evolved from the CIO position into a distinct C-suite role.

Rather than an 'executive without portfolio', the CINO is seen as key to an organisation’s future success. Dr. Jane Snowdon provides a great real-life example, IBM’s first appointed Federal Chief Innovation Officer in May last year.

Job description

The CINO’s key role is to constantly “bang the drum” for innovation, being essentially responsible for identifying and proposing areas where technology, company structure and day-to-day practices can be combined and refined to drive a business towards its corporate goals. A great CINO must be multi-skilled – a requisite that will often prevent traditional CIO or CEO job roles from absorbing this responsibility.

As a relatively new role for the UK business sector, the present incumbents of the CINO role tend to have a technology bias. However, in the future, the new crop of CINOs are most likely to be the CEOs in waiting, able to apply their multiple skills and broad knowledge to business situations that arise. This is especially true for non-Tech companies.

The CINO understands that innovation is needed to solve the organisation’s biggest problems, and tends to be far more comfortable with seeking input from others, knowing that the best ideas can come from anywhere.

The CINO must be strategically aware and able to operate tactically in the short-term, but be equally comfortable in long-term strategic planning. They will believe in the benefits of innovation, but may not be the creative, innovative thinker.

> See also: The evolving CIO: change or suffer

Their key role is to create the environment that values, allows and enables the innovators to operate for best effect. Finally, today’s CINO is very organisational-savvy; they understand how to best operate and who holds the power to get things done.

The combination of people skills, technological wisdom and a greater business understanding isn’t a natural marriage, and is the reason why innovation executives are becoming increasingly sort after.

Ideas to action

There aren’t many businesses in the world who wouldn’t welcome more internal innovation, as well as a higher conversion rate from ideas to reality. In a recent study by PwC and Corporate Executive Board, 61% of CEO said that innovation is a priority, and 75% of executives are concerned with not having enough ideas, respectively.

CINOs can help deliver on this front by addressing a number of key issues that are still widely missing in the make-up, and attitudes of most organisations.

Encouraging cross-company collaboration is a perfect example. Most businesses retain an inherently top-down mind-set. While structurally, there will always be senior leaders and junior employees working their way up, this hierarchical set-up need not be applied to innovation.

Good ideas can come from anywhere, and different perspectives bring new ideas and solutions. Changing ‘old school’ company culture and negative attitudes towards horizontal collaboration is a big challenge, but one that can be achieved in a number of ways.

Crowdsourcing innovation

Collaboration allows companies to begin crowdsourcing innovation, ensuring a business maximises the value it gets from its workforce’s creativity. There are a number of tactics CINOs can use to guarantee participation and results.

Physically, collaboration can be encouraged through intelligent office planning (e.g., open plan offices, relaxed meeting areas). Company-wide innovation can also be fostered virtually through collaborative technology software. Tools like Mindjet’s SpigitEngage allow companies to challenge the whole business, on a global scale, to provide answers to key questions or problems.

Gamification is an increasingly effective method from making a question or order from the boss into a game-like challenge. Innovation projects can be enhanced by scoring systems to encourage gentle competition and participation between employees, or reward schemes introduced – from a simple prize, to career progression incentives – to drive involvement.


The rise of the CINO is backed up by the numbers. A recent survey showed that 43% of large companies have a formally accountable innovation executive in place, up from 33% in 2011. CINO’s even have their own website! With corporate competition only intensifying in the post-recession era, and innovation increasingly sort after to stay ahead, it is highly unlikely we’ll be seeing Chief Innovation Officer appearing on ‘ridiculous job title’ lists anytime soon.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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