Stable IT backed by increasing innovation have leapt to the forefront of CIO priorities following a year of extraordinary political and cultural changes. These were among the key findings of the latest Harvey Nash CIO Survey, conducted with consultants KPMG, of IT leaders across the globe.

Amid these uncertain times, stable IT performance returned to the top of the list of operational priorities in the survey of 4,498 CIOs and technology leaders from 86 countries.

The 21% increase over the previous year was matched only by that of developing innovative new products and services.

Maintaining stability while fostering innovation is a tricky balance to achieve. The global political and economic uncertainty has caused 64% of organisations to adapt their digital strategy, but 89% are maintaining or increasing their investment in innovation.

Some 26% said the CIO was leading innovation in the organisation, but six in ten believe that the CIO should be taking a bigger role in the area.

Save the Children UK CIO Karl Hoods arranges digital events to create a climate that embraces experimentation.

"Within the IT team we have run hackathons and similar initiatives as well as providing time to research emerging technology and how that might help support the work we do," the CIO 100 member said in response to the Harvey Nash CIO Survey. "Using examples of disruption or innovation in different sectors has been useful in encouraging others to innovate."

Strategic role

Digital strategies at their organisations were deemed "very effective" by just 18% of CIOs. These CIOs were almost twice as likely to be leading innovation in the organisation (41% versus 23%). The biggest barrier seems to be culture rather than capital. The biggest challenge to implementing digital capabilities was overcoming resistance to change, at 43%.

The proportion of CIOs who believe the role is becoming more strategic reached a decade-high of 71%. Encouragingly they are increasingly working at board level. Some 92% of CIOs had joined a board meeting in the previous 12 months. Indeed, the 2017 CIO 100 revealed the UK's leading CIOs were enjoying a close proximity to their organisation's CEO and executive leadership committee.

The growing need for digital success has been matched by the rise of Chief Digital Officer. The percentage of organisations with a Chief Digital Officer has increased by 39% since 2016 and more than tripled in the last three years. In 2016 the number of organistions with a Chief Digital Officer had plateaued, leading some analysts to conclude the hype was over and CIOs were stepping up to leading the digital challenge.

More than half of large companies now have a CDO in post, but at smaller companies that number drops to barely one in five. The figures suggest the former recognise a need to formalise the coordination of digital strategies, while the latter are reliant on the nimble nature of their organisation.

Echoing the findings of the 2017 CIO 100, the skills shortage remains an issue and has been reported as a problem by around 60% of IT leaders in each of the last four years. The demand for enterprise architecture skills has increased by 26%, making it the fastest growing technology skill in 2017. Big Data analytics remains the most in-demand skill overall, up 8% since last year to 42%.

Attracting a diverse range of talent has long been viewed as a way to address the skills gap. Some 35% of organisations now having a formal diversity initiative in place, but women remain represented in IT leadership at the same low rate of just 9% as they did last year. Female CIOs are however far more likely to have received a salary increase than their male counterparts, at 42% and 32% respectively.

Direct Line Group CIO Triona O'Keefe believes that environments need to be created that support the various needs of diverse technology talent to develop.

"I personally have a vision of a world where diverse talent is truly recognised and nurtured, where individuals can manage their individual needs (home and work) and where what you deliver and how you do it is far more important than where or when you do it," she says.

Hopes and fears

Cyber security vulnerability is at an all-time high, with almost a third (32%) of organisations falling victim to an attack in the last two years, an increase of 45% since 2013. The growing sophistication of the threats has led just 21% to say they are "very well" prepared to respond to these attacks, down from the 29 percent in 2014.

The growing dangers of direct threats are mirrored by those resulting from global developments. The increasingly unpredictable wider political, business and economic environment has led 64% of IT leaders to adapt their technology strategy and plans. At least partly as a result, more than eight out of 10 IT leaders are seeing stable or growing budgets.

Last week it was reported on CIO UK that CIOs were expecting a budget increase specific to security to tackle the cyber threat, as revealed by the findings in the 2017 CIO 100.

Despite all of these challenges, CIOs are generally a happy bunch. This year a three-year high of 39% of the said they feel "very fulfilled" in their jobs,

The life span of the average CIO however remains relatively short, with a majority (59%) lasting fewer than five years in the job, despite many wanting to stay longer. As technology develops, so will their roles, but CIOs are generally optimistic about what the future holds.

Direct Line Group CIO Triona O'Keefe anticipates business and technology blending together until they become virtually indistinguishable by 2030.

"CIO roles will still exist, but there will be much fewer of them and they will be working in less fast-moving businesses or where a CIO is needed to decommission 'legacy' technology," she says.

"Meanwhile, there will be a huge surge of opportunity for ex-CIOs who can use their transferable skillset to be true business leaders. I'm looking forward to it!"