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Lisa Morgan
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What the CIO's Role Says About Your Company

The roles of chief information officers (CIOs) can vary significantly. Some are strategic business leaders, others are tactical implementers, some fall somewhere in between. What they do says a lot about your company.

Image: pichetw - stock.adobe.com
Image: pichetw - stock.adobe.com

The CIO role is continuing to evolve with time. That said, there's a wide variance in what that title means and how the role is treated within companies. In some organizations, the CIO reports to the CTO. In other organizations the reverse is true. Some oversee several other C-level roles including the chief data officer (CDO), chief analytics officer (CAO), Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) and CTO. Their span of control says something about their role in the organization.

However, the level of influence they have is even more important, particularly as businesses become more technology-dependent and technology-driven. Digital transformation is an extreme example of that.

Leader vs. order taker

Most CIOs have equal standing with other members of the C-suite, which wasn't always the case. For some, the old traditions continue in which the technology department is considered a tactical department. Its job is to keep technology infrastructure up and running at the least possible cost. Not surprisingly, the individuals in that role may feel under-appreciated, underutilized or both. What they describe is a job, not a career, which their compensation tends to reflect.

"Every company is a technology company today, so it changes the dynamic of the CIO," said Paul Gaynor, Global/US Alliances & US Technology consulting leader at global professional services firm PwC. "If keeping the lights on is what you bring to the table, then by nature you're going to be an infrastructure play, which is absolutely necessary, but [you] won't be a strategic member of the C-suite."

Paul Gaynor, PwC
Paul Gaynor, PwC

Some CIOs find creative ways to lead. For example, City of Oakland CIO Andrew Peterson walked into a situation in which the IT staff had been cut, prior to his tenure, from 120 to 40.

"Every organization is different. The problems are similar, but the way you address them is unique. I have to figure out how to get things done, the key points, the triggers that get people, the city and the council motivated," Peterson said. "I didn't do that when I came in. I said, 'I’m a Silicon Valley guy. Let's get going, 100 miles an hour.' They said, 'Can we get to 25?' We can't do Silicon Valley agile, so we're doing what I call 'government agile.' "

Peterson realized he had to earn trust if he wanted to affect change. So, instead of just talking about possibilities, he demonstrates them.

"You need quick wins," Peterson said. "When you come in from the outside and you're not in public service, you have to prove yourself. Quick wins help you do that. Get a quick win, then another, and all of a sudden people believe you can [do what you say you can do]. Then, they're coming to you. I want some of that and that's where we're at now."

Many seasoned CIOs moved into a strategic position over time based on a confluence of events. Technology became increasingly strategic to business competitiveness over time, but the organizational evolution wasn't just about technology. A cultural shift had to happen in which the CIO worked with other members of the C-suite and department heads to cooperatively problem-solve. Now their value is self-evident.

Andrew Peterson, City of Oakland
Andrew Peterson, City of Oakland

When the CIO is a strategic enabler, their teams are not just keeping an eye on emerging technologies, they're actively experimenting with and evaluating them to understand the potential business impact.

"The technology leaders who are investing or taking the initiative to digitally upscale their team are in a much better position to lead the organization forward to where the next big thing is, and they're wanted in the room," Gaynor said.

Strategic investment vs. cost center

By now, it should be obvious that technology spending isn't just a necessary evil, it's a strategic investment in the business. Because the investment is strategic, business goals drive technology selection and implementations.

However, in some organizations, new technology may be looking for a problem to solve. AI is an example of that because it's obviously a technology trend that impacts business competitiveness.

The worst-case scenario is the one in which IT is still viewed as a cost. When that's the case, it can be very difficult to justify technology spend.

"Technology] is part of the revenue stream of the company in the future. When it's just managed as a cost structure and it's just enabling infrastructure to support collaboration within the organization, then it becomes just a departmental activity to keep the lights on," Gaynor said. "More organizations are trying to become all things technology and not just digital for their own internal use."

The challenge all CIOs face

In a word, the biggest challenge facing CIOs today is complexity. Digital transformation adds to that complexity.

"If anything, it's the complexities of managing all the different priorities and the onslaught of all things digital and worrying about the brand impact when there are breaches," Gaynor said. "That's a very heavy load to deal with."

Meanwhile, CIOs have to ensure their teams are creating superior experiences because today's customers and employees have high expectations and lots of options.

"CIOs have to right be there with the head of sales, head of marketing, [and] head of product, understanding what the experience is we're looking to drive, what's the customer experience we want to have, [and] how do we mine that information," Gaynor said. "The CIO has to be in that feedback loop and provide the feedback data in a way management can understand and course correct as necessary."

For more about the changing roles of technology leaders in the enterprise check out these recent articles.

Where Do CISOs Belong in an IT Org Chart?

Detroit's IT Makeover, a Year Later

Ford Motor IT's Changing Direction

7 Disruptions CIOs Need to Watch

Who's Responsible When IT Goes Awry?

Lisa Morgan is a freelance writer who covers big data and BI 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 ... View Full Bio
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