Aug 9, 2018

Why CIOs Are Critical to the C-Suite (and Maybe Not for the Reasons You Think)


Chief information officer (CIO) is a job title commonly given to the most senior executive in an enterprise responsible for the traditional information technology and computer systems that support enterprise goals. – Wikipedia

Sure, that’s part of the job. But it’s an increasingly shrinking part of what the modern CIO actually does and is responsible for. That definition only covers what Gartner refers to as “Mode 1 IT” in its Bimodal framework. Mode 1, at its core, is the traditional upkeep of IT systems that enable a business to operate its digital assets—“keeping the lights on,” so to speak. This work is fundamental of course, but Mode 1 IT is not what’s driving businesses into their next stage of innovation.

CIOs are in a position to do a lot more for the organization than worry about how to keep all their systems patched while still saving money by moving to the cloud (even if that’s still part of the gig).

A Strategic Partner in the C-Suite

So why then are CIOs so critical to the C-suite if not for cost savings purposes or general systems upkeep? A recent Forbes article sums it up nicely: “Today’s CIO has rightfully assumed a much more prominent place in the strategic thinking of the business, not simply enabling other members of the C-suite to achieve their vision, but rather actively setting the agenda for the future of the digital enterprise.”

The modern CIO is first and foremost an agent of change and innovation with a mission for revenue growth and market share. The days of only being focused on the bottom line are over. Today, the CIO truly drives the thinking—and resulting strategy—on what to do with all that data, the systems and the emerging technologies that will capture value for the business. In other words, they’re a true partner to the CEO and other members of the C-suite.

The mission of the CIO has shifted quickly toward innovation, transformation and revenue generation, with organizations leaning on these executives more for their sociology and business school training than IT acumen. This is the case regardless of industry, even if some industries haven’t admitted it yet.

“The potential role for the CIO is to be the digital transformation person who’s going to understand what’s going on with business and then apply technology to get something out of it,” says David Higginson of Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “We’re moving toward more of an information science. All that effort and all that money we’ve spent getting data into the system—now what are we going to do with it?”

Managing Self-Disruption

The CIO role is undoubtedly evolving into a super-executive charged with generating revenue and scaling the digital business to outpace the competition, whoever that may be. Take the automotive industry as a prime example of this: Companies like Google and Apple have begun competing in a space long dominated by big automakers, but competitors such as Zipcar and Uber have extended the very boundaries of the personal mobility industry.

So where does that leave traditional giants like Ford and GM? Well, according to Ford’s CIO Marcy Klevorn, they’re aiming to disrupt themselves. “We know we have to expand into some new areas because if we don’t, someone else will,” she says. At their core, technology is driving the business, Klevorn acknowledges. “The F-150 today is powered not just by a choice of four high-performance engines and a 10-speed transmission, but also by 150 million lines of software code.”

For CIOs like Klevorn and others like her, emerging technology is where their time increasingly needs to be focused. One of the biggest hurdles to this endeavor is accumulating the skills to actually make it happen. There’s something we refer to as the IT Skills Gap that these leaders have to solve for. “What keeps me up at night is not the complexity of running a huge network, as some might expect,” Klevorn says. “It’s making sure we have a team with the skills and the passion to deliver at a different agility level than ever before. Competition for this talent is huge.”

Growing Complexity for the Business—and for CIOs Themselves

This points back to the distinction between Mode 1 IT and Mode 2 IT. Where CIOs need to spend more time, as evidenced throughout these examples, is on Mode 2: innovation, change and revenue growth. This will impact the business as much as it will the individual careers of CIOs. “The CIO role has become one of the most complicated in the C-suite,” says Bask Iyer, CIO of Dell and VMWare. “But it’s also preparing IT executives to serve as presidents, general managers, and CEOs.”

As the role itself grows more complex, the need for smart simplification will only increase—particularly as multicloud infrastructure becomes the norm. “CIOs will be shifting their attention toward brokering services that enable them to plan, procure and orchestrate cloud services from multiple vendors across hybrid clouds from a single pane of glass,” writes Marc Wilczek for CIO magazine.

Change is here to stay; transformation is a must. It only makes sense that the role that IT plays will continue to grow and expand—and with it, so too will the role of CIO, whether they’re ready or not.

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