All change? The CIO challenge in the next five years

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Posting date: 10 May 2024

What of the CIO? Ankur Anand, CIO at Nash Squared, looks at how the role of the Chief Information Officer has evolved and where it’s heading in the future.

This article first appeared in Computing.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier – but is it getting harder to be a CIO?

There is a rising tide of technology as it becomes ever more important to how companies operate. But whether or not the CIO becomes more important with it depends on how the individual responds. Whereas going back a decade or so technology was mostly controlled on-premise by the CIO, the move to the cloud has democratised IT.

There aren’t just multiple stakeholders but even multiple owners of tech now. This means that CIOs need a new mindset and new skills, collaborating with the business, influencing, guiding, and persuading.

They need to be more fluid, adaptable and prepared to deal with the ambiguity that can come from blurred lines. It’s very different to the ‘command and control’ of the past.

And it doesn’t end there. Over the coming years, I expect the evolution of the role to accelerate even further. CIOs will need to adjust and adapt even more to deliver against expectations.

CIOs moving to the heart of strategic decision making – propelled by AI

In particular, this will be driven by the advent of AI and GenAI. With so much hype and expectation around these technologies, Boards are looking to their CIO to cut through the noise and provide clear counsel on how they can be deployed and scaled in the organisation.

Because Automation and AI is becoming key to business strategy and future direction, so too the CIO is moving much closer to strategic thinking and decision-making. In my view, this will be a big change for CIOs in the next five years.

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Whereas up to now they have primarily been informed of strategic decisions that have been taken and charged to execute the technology aspects arising out of them, moving forwards CIOs will be actively involved in the strategic decision making itself. 

They will have a bigger opportunity to shape the strategy – they may be the one with the vision, who understands the art of the possible, and who sets that out to the Board and wins buy-in and engagement. They will be at the forefront of defining new business models, working in close partnerships with teams and functions across the organisation or coming up with innovative ideas to drive automation with data. In short, they will have a more prominent and active seat at the strategic Boardroom table.

We are already seeing this in the hard data – our 2023 Digital Leadership Report finds that 68% of CIOs now sit on the operational board/executive management team, up from a recent low of 61% in 2020.

The implication is that when new technology challenges arise (such as in the wake of the pandemic), technology leaders’ influence grows.

Our research also finds that when digital leaders are given a seat at the top table, it delivers advantages in terms of outperforming the competition across many metrics, including a 20% uplift in adopting new technology and a 24% advantage in attracting and retaining talent.

Greater responsibility for outcomes

It's an exciting prospect – but it also comes with increased responsibility. Boards are making CIOs more responsible for outcomes and this is another trend that will increase.

Accountability for the success or otherwise of technology investments sits with the CIO. This is as it should be, but it also means that CIOs will need to double down on ensuring there are appropriate governance mechanisms and controls within the business so that technology doesn’t become an unstructured ‘wild west’.

The CIO must set the guardrails and basic protocols for technology. Then it is about collaborating and delivering together as a business.

Then there is data. The key importance of enabling data to flow across an organisation, and to be able to leverage it to drive insights into business performance and customer behaviour – not to mention security and privacy – has led to data management and strategy moving up the list of most CIOs’ responsibilities.

Indeed, we have begun to see data being highlighted specifically within CIO job descriptions, and even the creation of new job titles such as CDIO (Chief Data & Information Officer) or CDAIO (Chief Data, Analytics & Information Officer).

Partnership and collaboration with the CTO

Over the last few years, we have also seen the rise and growing prominence of another key postholder: the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Broadly speaking, I see the CTO’s role as being very technology-focused, managing operational issues around ‘hard tech’ products and solutions.

The CIO meanwhile will retain a wider enterprise focus on business needs and strategy. Without doubt, working closely together in a creative and two-way partnership will be a key determinant of success.

Given the growing strategic emphasis of the CIO role, another interesting side-question is whether we will see more of them moving to the top role of all – CEO? My hunch is that we will. Our own CEO at Nash Squared, Bev White, is a former CIO and there are a number of other examples in industry.

A passion for technology

A lot of change is coming, and with it a raft of possibilities. But one thing I hope doesn’t change about the CIO is that they should be passionate and obsessed with technology in all its forms.

Yes, they are becoming strategists and business decision makers – but it’s that love of technology, that compulsion to understand it and explore, that will really enable the CIO to bring business and technology together in new and exciting ways.

They should be that person who, on the train, is reading that new book (on their phone or e-reader) about AI or edge computing or the metaverse. Let that remain!

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