What is the role of the CIO in a digital world?

5 October 2016

Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Former Head of Digital Transformation

Our world is undergoing a radical digital transformation as organisations invest in new technologies to modernise their business infrastructure and accelerate growth. There is nothing so constant as change, so the saying goes, and this has left me thinking how the role and influence of the IT department, and in particular the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO), has evolved over the twenty five years I have been in the industry.

Chris-Smith-CIO-changing-role-content-picture.jpgWhen I started out, ‘distributed computing’ was the hot topic. The days of DEC, Wang and Data General. The role of the IT team was largely technical, centred on getting new applications delivered with a short term focus. These teams were seen as having very little relevance to the direction and strategy of the business. CIOs (not sure whether the title even existed back then) were seen as technical gurus, having risen through the IT ranks with very little voice at board level. 

Now fast forward to 2016. If in today’s world technology really is a business enabler, or in some instances a disrupter, what should the role and background of the CIO be? Forbes recently conducted research which suggested that many companies are unhappy with the performance of their CIO and their limited input into company strategy. So should CIOs continue to be drawn from the ranks of the technical or should they come from other business disciplines? 

This consideration is supported by recent research by the Harvard Business Review that found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of the 682 companies in the U.S. and Europe surveyed in the second quarter of 2016 predicted significant impact from digital technology in two years. This is compared to only 21% that reported to be currently experiencing major results. Does this imply that many organisations are simply oblivious to the tsunami of change that is about to hit them. How many of them have realised that this is an opportunity to embrace this digital change and beat their competition.

I muse and wonder whether the conclusion is that the role of the traditional CIO is fast disappearing. Shouldn’t the role concentrate on where investment needs to be focused across the business to accelerate commercial objectives rather than supporting legacy systems? As more and more IT is provided as a service in the cloud, surely this an opportunity to harness the talent from other parts of the business? Whether it be sales, marketing, research, operations, etc., it’s these teams that are increasingly recognising the value IT can deliver in driving their business forward. Alternatively, traditional CIOs need to look to beyond their ever diminishing server room and start to engage with the business to see the opportunities technology can bring.

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