What is the role of the CIO?

The CIO role is one of the key leadership roles in the tech sector, and ensures that all capabilities in the organisation are running as they should be. More internal-facing than their CTO counterparts, CIOs need to constantly keep track of the value that internal processes are driving for the business, and adapt where necessary in response to decreased performance or changing trends. The position has rapidly changed over the last few years, and with this in mind, we take a look at what the CIO role entails in today’s landscape.

Building project teams

One key responsibility of the CIO is to build the right team for tech-orientated projects. As digital transformation continues to underpin continuous innovation, having insufficient skill sets at the team’s disposal can bring any project to a standstill, so searching internally, as well as hiring from outside, requires careful consideration.

“Without the right team behind them, there can be no digital transformation,” said Callum Adamson, CEO of Distributed. “The pandemic has also made this more difficult by heightening the IT skills shortage. With every technology leader desperate for tech-literate staff to support digital change at short notice, building such a workforce has become a priority for CIOs.

“Fierce competition for digital skills means that CIOs must consider alternative approaches to ensure they are winning the battle for talent. Rather than paying high salaries and competing with rivals, many are exploring a more on-demand model instead. For example, engaging freelance staff on a project basis gives tech leaders more flexibility to scale their workforce up and down as required.

“Where difficulties arise is that CIOs tend to run complex digital projects that can’t be completed by one or two trusted freelancers with a specific area of expertise. This is particularly pertinent because of the speed at which transformation needs to take place.”

Driving collaboration

Once the right team has been brought together for an internal project, CIOs need to foster and facilitate collaboration between staff. This calls for silos to be broken down, and a variety of skills, both soft and technical, to be utilised throughout.

“For CIOs, the fundamentals haven’t changed in that individuals need to be highly experienced business leaders and technologists with a strong track record of achievement,” said Neil Price, head of practice – CIO & executive technology leadership at Harvey Nash Group.

“But the focus these days is really on individuals who are able to drive collaboration across the business. Organisations are looking for someone who can be the leader for technology and digital across the business as a whole, not just someone to lead the IT department.

“The days of ‘department leaders’ are over; it’s about collaboration in a coordinated strategy that delivers on key outcomes.”

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Balancing business and tech

Just like developers and engineers can’t afford to carry out their work in silos if digital transformation is to be successful, CIOs aren’t able to ensure true value without working closely with the CEO and other business leaders. They must clearly communicate their vision to stakeholders, explaining why their strategy is the way forward, and adjust accordingly in line with business requirements. Indeed, balancing tech and business needs is vital.

Anna Barsby, former retail CIO and co-founder of Tessiant, commented: “First and foremost, the CIO’s objectives and outcomes need to be aligned with the business. The best way for a CEO to help a CIO to be effective is to include the CIO in all of the top-level conversations. The CIO needs to be at the board table to understand the rationale behind decisions so that they can convey this to their team. It’s important that they’re not stuck in the basement and told what to do.

“CIOs need to act as a conduit between the tech world and the business. They need to act as an interpreter: understanding what the business needs and conveying that to technology professionals. Equally, they must be able to explain to the board, in business terms, what is possible and achievable with technology.

“As a CIO it’s important to understand that you are an enabler of change and, therefore, have an important influence on the business bottom line. You are not there to be a technologist. The key is to work with business colleagues.

“An empowered CIO will make business processes more efficient, allowing employees to focus on higher value tasks. A CIO who understands that they are there to improve the performance of the business is the CEO’s best ally.”

Leading cloud adoption

A major trend that’s been generally disrupting the tech sector worldwide is increased cloud adoption. With the increased agility, speed and efficiency of operations that cloud infrastructure provides, CIOs are keen to get the best out of it, and implement capabilities into workplace operations. But it’s worth remembering that cloud adoption is never a one-and-done process, and entails a long journey that the whole organisation needs to be brought on.

“If you’re a CIO and you can’t answer the question: “when are we going to the cloud?”, the likelihood is that you’ll be fired,” said Patrick Smith, CTO EMEA at Pure Storage.

“The scale of adoption of cloud technology has been astronomical over the last few years but will increasingly focus on exploiting benefits of adopting containers in 2022.

“With IT budgets being reallocated from maintaining systems to pursuing innovation, every CIO has to be armed with a comprehensive success plan for how they will use containers and the cloud together in 2022. But they need to remember that fast adoption isn’t everything, the foundations need to be solid.

“Plans need to be forward looking and build in flexibility because change in this space is guaranteed; be it cloud provider or K8s distribution or both. Modern applications run on modern data services where K8s is the foundation; enterprises want to win with data and the CIO holds the key to this victory.”

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Customer experience

Though the role of the CIO is usually predominantly focused on internal operations, research has revealed that responsibilities of many executives in this position have adapted to focus more on users of products and services.

The 2021 Global CIO Survey from Logicalis discovered that many CIOs have shifted their priorities to focus on the customer experience, with 79% of CIOs committed to developing innovative solutions to meet customer needs.

Logicalis CTO Toby Alcock expanded on the findings: “The role of the CIO has changed. The last two years have seen an increased focus on digital transformation and the associated skills and tools needed for businesses to transform successfully.

“With the virtual world taking precedence due to the pandemic, many companies have had to create experiences online that are just as good as the ones they had in person, meaning business strategies have had to be reimagined. This adaptability has become a key skill for CIOs across the world and will continue to be needed in 2022.”

Additionally, CIOs appear to be moving away from day-to-day management and are becoming strategic business leaders. To ensure the continued engagement with customers, 77% of CIOs are investing more in strategic planning to create technologies that will benefit their relationships.

Alcock added: “This differs to pre-pandemic traits, which suggested that CIOs tended to be less customer facing, and are now actively working with customers to develop platforms and solutions that solve key challenges customers are facing.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.

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