Why and How the Chief Information Officer Role is Changing

Business competitiveness rules and technologies are constantly changing, and with them, the role of the CIO.

Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer

March 24, 2021

8 Min Read
Image: yanlev - stock.adobe.com

Today's CIOs should be a strategic asset to their companies. If they're not, then your company has a problem, you've got the wrong person in the position, or both. Businesses are becoming increasingly digitalized and as a result business and IT strategies must be unified.

"The CIO almost becomes a Swiss Army knife in terms of knowing something about the operations of everything because everything involves the technology in some way, shape or form," said Rich Temple, VP and CIO at Deborah Heart and Lung Center. "The CIO is a much more strategically and operationally focused role than I think it ever was."

From technologist to business strategist

Traditionally, the CIO was considered the chief nerd who really didn't understand anything about business. As a result, many CIOs had to fight hard for a seat at the executive table which was otherwise populated by business leaders. Now, a growing number of CIOs are assuming leadership status in the C-suite because they understand how a combined business and technology strategy, process improvements and cultural adaptation enable innovation, growth and organizational resilience.


"My background in business, rather than engineering, offers a unique perspective and approach, and I think that's reflective of the evolving C-suite as a whole," said Antonio Vasquez, CIO at intelligent process automation platform provider Bizagi. "Executives with different backgrounds, educations and experiences are wearing hats or growing into hats beyond their typical job descriptions. My background allows me to stretch beyond my CIO lens and view companies' initiatives and restructuring from a strategic, pragmatic, scalable business standpoint."

Bill VanCuren, SVP and CIO at enterprise technology company NCR Global, makes a point of treating other members of the C-suite as peers, partners and customers. In fact, when a new CXO is hired, he makes a point of booking an introductory meeting with that person in the first 30 days and charting a course for a mutual partnership.

"The days of leading within silos have ended," said VanCuren. "For any organization to succeed, the CIO must work in lockstep to help drive most functions including those led by both the CMO and CFO. Organizations [that] realize the need for non-compartmentalization of information technology will be the ones who not only succeed, but lead."


Mary Gendron, CIO at wireless technology company Qualcomm, said she considers it her responsibility to stay one step ahead of the CTO, CEO, and CFO in anticipating Qualcomm's needs and ensuring the company has the necessary capabilities in place to enable its engineers to do their best work.

"Great companies use CIOs because they are strategic enablers, they are leaders in the Information Age," said Gendron. "My team is engaged at every level of the company, whether it's resolving supply chain issues, addressing compliance issues or ensuring our intellectual property is secure. The CIO is everywhere in a digital company and it's how the company stays connected."


Complementary positions are emerging

The C-suite is growing well beyond its traditional line of business focus to include titles such as Chief Digital Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Data Officer and Chief Analytics Officer. To whom those titles and the CIO report varies from organization to organization. For example, the CIO may report to the CEO, the COO or the CFO. Similarly, a Chief Digital Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Data Officer and Chief Analytics Officer may report to the CIO, or not.

"I think one of the reasons that you're seeing roles like the Chief Digital Officer and Chief Innovation Officer is because the CIO is viewed like kind of the plodding along old guy and I need someone who can think fast and move fast and all that," said Scott Howitt, CIO at antivirus, cloud, VPN, end point and enterprise security company McAfee.


Sometimes, the CIO may move into a Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Digital Officer role to advance the company's digital strategy.

"Progressive CIOs and those with an agile and growth mindset are leaving the traditional CIO roles for these new opportunities where they can shape the future of their companies, design new products and define new business models," said Chris Nardecchia, CIO at manufacturing and industrial automation company Rockwell Automation. "A transformational CIO can align the C-suite on digital strategy, facilitate change across the enterprise and use emerging and proven technologies to innovate and drive agility."


NCR's VanCuren said the most progressive companies are hiring CIOs who can take on the traditional CIO responsibilities and drive the digital agenda. In his view, the CIO should manage and drive digital transformation and analytics.

"The CIO will be the visionary and primary driver. They will be the person who will spearhead the implementation and engagement throughout the organization," said Nardecchia. "As a transformational CIO, your peers and your people will look to you to collaborate on digital transformation, lead the change for the organization, drive agile and flexible practice and be at the forefront of emerging technologies."

While the Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Digital Officer can fall under the CIO, breaking those roles out and developing a deeper understanding of those complex, technical areas can provide the organization with greater value as it matures according to Bizagi's Vasquez.

At Deborah Heart and Lung Center, which is a relatively small organization, Temple has dual responsibilities as CIO and the HIPAA Security Officer.


"The role of the chief information officer is to make sure the right information flows into the right place at the right time in the right form and the HIPAA security officer has to make sure that information is flowing in a secure manner and that people aren't seeing stuff they shouldn't see," said Temple. "In a larger organization, I think you might have to segment that."

The CIO as a revenue generator

Traditionally, IT was viewed as a cost center -- a necessary but unsexy expense. However, since competitiveness turns on an organization's ability to drive value quickly through technology, some CIOs have been billing their work to the business units they serve like a consulting firm, especially since IT budgets exist outside of IT now. In some rare cases, CIOs are generating revenue for the company by building new products.

"If you understand the technology but you don't understand how that contributes to revenue, you've got an issue," said McAfee's Howitt. "We established something here as a value realization office where you can bring all your [IT] requests, but I'm not going to be an order taker. Tell me if I did this enhancement or modification or signed on this new SaaS product, how will it contribute to the revenue stream or how does it decrease our costs?"

Rockwell Automation's Nardecchia said CIO roles are pivoting to revenue generation because their companies realize that IT and the business are inseparable. As a result, they'll increasingly look to IT leaders to drive new business models and revenue sources.

The pandemic served as a wakeup call

The pandemic tested CIOs' mettle. Within a matter of days their teams needed to enable a remote workforce just to keep the company operating.


"The role of the CIO has been on a pathway to change for some time, but the pandemic has served as a significant catalyst for accelerating that change," said Chris Campbell, CIO at DeVry University. "No longer are CIOs perceived solely as a technology expert. They are also an educator, influencer and strategic partner who is a necessary part of institutional decision-making."

Bizagi's Vasquez said if the pandemic made anything evident, it's that the responsibility for an organization's technology can't fall on a single department under a single executive's leadership.

"Cross-collaboration and extra hands in the decision-making process is key," said Vasquez. "Technology is so engrained in the way companies conduct business, it touches every inch of an organization. I foresee my role expanding to have an impact on legal components, regulatory frameworks, governance, profitability improvement, business architecture -- the list goes on."

The rapid shift to completely digital work processes in the last year required CIOs to take on multiple new responsibilities.

"The nature of the work underwent a digital eclipse and CIOs became the first stop when strategizing the business decisions where the survival of their organizations was contingent upon success," said Bizagi's Vasquez. "Moving forward, CIOs will continue to play a larger role in the C-suites executive decision-making process, always speaking the business language."

DeVry's Campbell thinks CIOs will need to help evolve the roles of the entire CXO team as technology "becomes more of a team sport."

"Unfortunately, the Coronavirus pandemic is not the only crisis that organizations will face moving forward," said Campbell. "Therefore, the CIO will become a crucial component in ensuring crisis plans are strategic, actionable and forward-thinking to continue providing maximum value for customers."

Related Content:

10 Things IT Leaders Learned in 2020

CIOs: The New Corporate Rock Stars

IT Leadership: 10 Ways the CIO Role Changed in 2020


About the Author(s)

Lisa Morgan

Freelance Writer

Lisa Morgan is a freelance writer who covers business and IT strategy and emerging technology for InformationWeek. She has contributed articles, reports, and other types of content to various publications and sites ranging from SD Times to the Economist Intelligent Unit. Frequent areas of coverage include big data, mobility, enterprise software, the cloud, software development, and emerging cultural issues affecting the C-suite.

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