Strategic Partners

The evolving role of the CIO in 2020

Saad Chaudhry, Executive Partner, Gartner, and Mandip Dulay, Founder of the COO Network, share insights on the evolution of the CIO and how the notion of business as usual in IT Operations is a thing of the past

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The boardroom composition will continue to shift in order to embrace the emerging business trends, with Chief Technology and Innovation Officers (CTO) taking the lead on driving digital-enabled growth, whilst considering other agile elements which increase organisational revenue.  Such roles were previously under the remit of the COO; and will now drive additional challenge for the COO to continue remaining the second-in-command.

That said, the role of the CIO is also challenged. Your CIO is dead. The transactional CIO, whom you once knew, is a thing of the past and COVID-19 fired the last shot. Transactional CIOs were forged when all that was required of them was to oversee system implementations and upgrades. Today matters are different. More and more CEO’s want to focus on digitally fueled growth and revenues, versus expanding their physical corporate structures, and this changes the game for CIOs and COOs alike.

According to a recent survey conducted by Gartner, 67% of executive board level respondents consider digital disruption to be among their top business priorities. However, it’s not just the leadership expectations that are growing; the tech that CIOs were used to dealing with has changed as well. Technologies such as blockchain, IoT, AI, advanced analytics, edge computing, immersive experiences, autonomous services, digital twinning, have taken center stage. Where we were once gradually seeing a drive towards digital transformation from a business perspective, now, in the time of the Pandemic, it has become a necessity.

Before the Pandemic, we had been noticing both the COOs and the CIOs evolving towards their digital futures on two separate paths. The typical “Business Service Provider” COO was evolving towards a “Productiser” COO of the future, while the transactional “Systems Provider” CIO of the past was moving towards a “Moderniser” CIO of the future. This metamorphosis, however, was interrupted by the Pandemic. The Pandemic forced both the CIO and COO roles to ramp up their digital evolution, converging their focuses rapidly on using technology for business and revenue growth. And so the new digital leader does not only need to have a solid grasp of the tech landscape, but also the business operations.

So, how do you get here? How does an organisation begin thinking about leadership talent for this brave new world?  Well, an organisation’s approach or profile for digital leadership talent depends on two key influencing factors:

Factor 1: Understanding the degree to which technology investments and products are tying directly into your business growth and revenue.

When criticality of Information & Technology to your business model is low, I&T acts as an enabler to the business capabilities being delivered by the enterprise. Therefore, Investment in emerging technologies ends up being low. In such a case, I&T is not a core part of the way the company operates or derives revenue, nor is it embedded in its products or services. It is, however, core to delivering efficiency.

On the other hand, when the pervasiveness of I&T within the business model is high, it is embedded in the customer experience, products and services, and is used for enterprise operations. In this case, I&T is central to revenue generation for the enterprise, its industry, and the ecosystem. Businesses on this end of the spectrum tend to invest significantly more in emerging technologies.


 Factor 2: The approach to talent (future leaders) at the organisation in general.

Talent Approach” is the way an organisation seeks to hire and grow their leaders. On one end of the spectrum is the traditional approach; where a company seeks to hire employees early in their career and grow and develop them internally to meet the ongoing needs of the business as it changes. A “cradle to grave” hiring approach including the use of high potential candidate lists and clear promotion paths, among others. In this case, I&T leadership is often contained within the IT department which reports into the CIO or head of IT. Enterprises commonly upskill and train workers to address talent gaps, using university partnerships and source locally to fill positions.

On the other end of the spectrum, the nontraditional approach is when a company uses a broad range of technologies and approaches to acquire, augment or replace human talent. For example, taking advantage of the “gig economy” or replacing workforce with robotics or artificial intelligence to deliver repeatable business capabilities. This approach is often coupled with a leadership team that has technology embedded in the DNA of all executives, and a CIO deeply involved in corporate strategy, often reporting directly to the CEO.

By understanding these two factors and their scales, you can map out the profile that your organisation would have, in terms of their digital leadership over the course of the next several years.

Lastly, while we have plenty of research and data to understand where the path leads, there is an important element to consider for the future digital leader: their leadership personality. Here, the COOs have a leg-up, for they have been sharpening their corporate and political skill sets over the ages, while the CIOs have just recently begun to think of themselves as true corporate executives. The skill sets in this arena involve the ability to balance the use of power, manipulation, and conflict.

There is certainly an opportunity for both the CIOs and COOs to evolve to be the digital leaders their organisations will need. And both these roles have strengths and weaknesses attached to them historically, based on their past cycles of evolution, that they can draw on. That being said, the metamorphosis will now accelerate, due to the pandemic-induced haste, and the executives that emerge as the future digital leaders will undoubtedly be those that are able to strike a balance across the board in all the aforementioned factors.


About the COO Network

The COO Network is a not-for-profit institute, whose core purpose is to create a vibrant eco-system for aspiring COOs to shape their profession further, enabling them to address emerging themes and challenges, whilst driving talent development.

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