The Chief Information Officer (CIO) role has long been a position of power. As the top executive deciding which technologies and IT platforms to implement company-wide, CIOs hold one of the most business-critical, influential functions in many organizations. But the CIO role is also rapidly shifting. The CIO position emerged a few decades ago when companies had to make huge, lasting, multimillion-dollar decisions about which hardware and software to deploy. But today, the role has shifted from “chief tech buyer” to “chief tech strategist”- and not every CIO has been able to swiftly and effectively adapt to this new reality.
Today, developers and other employees hold a lot of the power in deciding which technologies to adopt. Developers share with their bosses which tools and platforms they need to be successful, and employees often use whichever productivity apps work best for their needs, bristling when “forced” to use systems they find clunky or outdated. What can CIOs do to help their companies grow within this new world of bottoms-up technology adoption?
I talked with dozens of CIOs and other technology leaders such as CTOs, CDOs, and CISOs to understand the factors influencing the technology landscape today. Collectively, these leaders pointed to four main trends that are shifting power dynamics and reshaping the CIO role.
Development took over infrastructure
Today, virtually every company, from Amazon to Dominos Pizza, defines itself as a software company. And software companies rely on speed and agility to thrive. With software as the driving force, it’s no surprise that many companies also define themselves as developer-first. Development needs to move fast, so it is now seen as disruptive to business growth for development, testing, and deployment to have to wait on a new server installation, capacity planning, or networking configuration. As a result of this shift, engineering teams often rely on modern technologies like open source, APIs, and cloud innovations, to move faster. We also see new roles and domains emerge such as DevOps to accelerate software delivery while reducing problems and enhancing resiliency. These new jobs require nimble skill sets that leverage flexible technologies and processes foreign to traditional IT professionals. In this reality that’s focused on rapid development, the CIO cannot own Ops any longer, so DevOps rolls into Engineering. Similarly, to better serve the development lifecycle, adoption of new technologies is done directly by Engineering without IT involvement.
Business users reign supreme
Shadow IT, or the bottoms-up practice of departments deploying their own technology tools without IT’s consent, was the crack that signaled a breaking point between the CIO’s pace and the desired pace of the organization. Shadow IT is about both supply and demand. While the CIO needs to take the whole organization into consideration which elongates processes, business teams have distinct, pressing challenges they need to solve. They can’t wait for the CIO to introduce innovation or they risk falling behind in today’s fast-paced, development-fixated world. In addition, today’s technology-native employees often don't need the help of an IT person to adopt new solutions, especially since mobile and web applications are now mostly very easy to use. Furthermore, vendors have made it easier to bypass the CIO with cloud and SaaS solutions that democratize technology purchases and usage. As a result, the CIO has moved from being the key decision-maker to someone who just signs the contracts after adoption has been established.
Security got emancipated from CIO’s rule
Traditionally, the security function was part of the overall IT organization. However, in recent years, we’ve witnessed a rise in the importance of security: The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) role has thus emerged not just to manage cybersecurity, but also physical security, risk, compliance, and privacy. Due to this new level of responsibility for the CISO, the security team has broken away from the CIO in many companies. It’s common to see that IT is parallel to security with both the CISO and CIO reporting to the same executive, most often the CEO. In some cases, the traditional roles have even flipped and security actually owns IT as the latter helps execute and implement security initiatives. With these changes in organizational dynamics between the CISO and the CIO, the latter has seen a reduction in their sphere of influence.
New leaders have emerged
The modern organization needs to be agile and open to change in order to react to market pressures and compete effectively. With new technologies and domains emerging, so have new leaders. Data is increasingly fueling decision-making in organizations and there’s a new type of captain to steer this ship. These days, it’s common to see a Chief Data Officer take on the realms of data processing, analytics, and insights from CIOs. Similar to engineering, data teams now own their respective technology stack and look after domain responsibilities such as extraction, preparation, ingestion, consistency, reliability, and more. Another factor is that many organizations are going through digital transformations and have appointed Chief Digital Officers to manage this important mission. This new type of leader is tasked with innovation and is strategizing, planning, and often rethinking the technology landscape of legacy solutions and on-premise deployments. The rise of these new leaders has signaled a fall in the areas of impact of the CIO.
If CIOs are not careful, their IT domain could be deemed irrelevant or standing in the way of business, while their role could be seen as mostly about paying the bill or operating the IT helpdesk. So, should they pack their bags and leave? Of course not! CIOs gained their spot at the top of the organizational pyramid for a good reason -- their know-how driving the technological lane is unmatched. But, with the environment changing, being stagnant and focusing on IT support / operations might lead CIOs to a tough spot. Luckily, they are the ones that hold the key that will unlock their way out of this maze.
CIOs possess the power to reinvent their role by thinking bigger and bolder than ever before. They need to formalize their mission in this new business world and design an action plan for impact. But how can they redefine a meaningful sphere of influence? For one, CIOs need to be strongly embedded in the company hierarchy and work on strategic missions that are revenue-generating and customer-impacting. CIOs should drive new sources of revenue for the company by either developing new products and services or using their technological expertise, to help monetize technology or data assets. They should also boost sales for the company through thought leadership, executive engagements, and deploying the company’s products in visionary ways that convert prospects into customers. Another forward-thinking area for CIOs could be collaborating with other CXOs on strategic company-wide initiatives, such as revamping the employee experience to reduce turnover.
CIOs aren’t the dinosaurs of the C-Suite that some make them out to be. But they are also no longer the captains of the technology ship with a team of sailors ready to carry out their commands. Instead, CIOs today should see themselves more like coaches, working hand-in-hand with all the developers, users, and implementers of technology across their organizations to together find solutions to challenges big and small.