Are CIOs the new CEOs?

I read a recent analyst report from Forrester which outlined its view on the role that CIOs now fulfil.  According to the Forester report, CIO’s are now viewed as the most important senior leaders in driving business transformation and innovation, with many believing them to have more input than a CEO.

Forrester highlights the CIO’s key role in supporting business change, with technology playing a key part in breaking down barriers within an organisation’s structure.
This view is backed by a survey of respondents from the US and Europe involved in business transformation projects in the last three years. The survey revealed that 29 percent of respondents believed that the CIO was the most important figure in terms of supporting and driving business change. This was the highest amongst the C-suite, and more than that of the CEO, which was seen as most important by 24 percent of respondents.

The report also identified four main types of CIO in terms of their involvement in IT projects and their ability to lead change:

·         Soldiers or Order-Takers – These CIO’s do not have the ear of the board in the way that other CIO’s often do. According to Forrester, they account for roughly 10% of CIOs and should, at a minimum, make sure that the business leaders are aware of the potential pitfalls of an IT project.

·         Leaders of IT – This group successfully balances IT and enterprise business needs and are capable of ensuring that the appropriate IT functions are involved in a large scale IT project, as well as providing a wider enterprise focus. Leaders of IT account for the majority of CIOs, approximately 70%.

·         Change Consultants – According to Forrester, around one in 10 CIOs have extensive experience in advising and consulting on business transformation having been involved in projects in the past and are able to implement templates, best practices and learning from other companies.

·         Transformation Leaders – This group is given the responsibility to lead the transformation themselves. They ensure effective resource application, funding and progress tracking, and report directly to the CEO. According to Forrester, this CIO role is relatively uncommon and accounts for around 5-10% of CIOs.

The role of the CIO has changed dramatically in the last decade. Technology now forms the backbone of most businesses and is a major enabler of change, innovation and a driver for sustainable competitive advantage. It’s no surprise, therefore, to discover that IT has become a key component of organisational planning and strategy. As such, today’s CIOs need well developed business and leadership skills, in addition to their more traditional technical abilities, in order to operate successfully at this level.

Many CIOs are becoming business leaders – but not all are moving in this direction. In my experience this is often down to the individual. For example, I recently met a CIO at a trade show who felt that his role was to tell the business why out of 10 things that the business had requested, IT could only deliver two and that his department wasn’t responsible for leading on innovation.
This reinforced in my mind that despite the job title, many CIOs are still largely IT managers at heart and don’t fully understand what it takes to lead, shape and deliver a large IT project. Don’t get me wrong there are CIOs who have a keen understanding of the business and approach technology from a business driven perspective, and there are those that are born and bred technologists.

I believe that the magnitude and complexity of responsibility has also increased. Time was when the IT leadership was just about implementing technology and delivering IT projects to time and budget. Clearly these things remain important but they are now hygiene factors.
What really matters for the new generation of CIOs is delivering value to the business, whether this comes from the way in which they support the day-to-day operations, ensuring that business and IT strategies are aligned or by helping to deliver IT enabled business change.

As for those CIOs who fall into the category of ‘born and bred technologist’ – they must evolve or they will become irrelevant. They must develop a keen understanding of the business, be effective at collaborating with different business teams and understand the importance of any IT project they are leading.
In order to achieve this they need a balanced set of skills that combines good communication techniques with sound business acumen, enabling effective interactions across different business functions. They must be innovators, agile, strategic thinkers that embrace new technologies and new ways of approaching old problems.
Today, businesses change at the speed of light and CIOs need to have the capability to quickly change direction to keep pace with business requests. Above all, I believe they need to have a proactive, questioning approach that thrives on challenging the status quo.

However, to deliver some or all of the attributes outlined above, CIOs really need to be supported by agile, flexible, ‘plug and play’ technology that enables them to rapidly deliver what the business needs. They need agile and adaptive systems, not clunky hard-coded applications, to give them the freedom to innovate and more importantly help their teams be more productive and explore new possibilities, bringing fresh thinking to the organisation.

So back to my opening paragraph and question: are CIOs becoming more pivotal to the business than CEOs? I believe this is changing with CIOs increasingly maturing into true business leaders. As they develop their skill sets, garner business experience in the wider organisation rather than just in IT, and function more entrepreneurially (whilst retaining a ruthless focus on good business practice), then I think we’ll see a new breed of CIO that is well equipped to lead and deliver change and innovation.

Zahid Jiwa is UK and Ireland VP at OutSystems 

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