This is a both an exciting and a challenging time to be a CIO; the way organisations are using technology is changing and this is placing new demands on technology leaders and changing what is expected of the CIO role.
In the digital world, CIOs are required to be business leaders who are responsible for technology, not just pure technology leaders. They need to sound and act like a business leader, take a business-focused approach to leading the IT function and contribute to issues and subjects beyond technology. And they need to focus on the core business, its customers, products and services, and use their knowledge of technology to identify opportunities to create value for the organisation.
But it does not stop there. Other functions are now getting involved in technology decisions and, in some cases, owning their own IT budget. The CIO is no longer the organisation's IT gatekeeper with the power to control every technology decision. Instead they have to advise, guide and influence the technology decisions being made across the organisation.
To rise to these challenges, the modern CIO needs new skills and capabilities, and they also need to be highly engaged inside and outside the organisation. IT leaders now have to be far more social animals that spend an increasing amount of their time outside of the IT function engaging with their stakeholders within the organisation, and with the organisation’s customers, partners and suppliers.
Adjusting to this new type of role is something I am often asked about when I work with CIOs and other IT executives on a one-to-one basis. Fortunately, there are many techniques, tools and frameworks that can help technology leaders to develop the skills, knowledge and ways of working required to perform the modern CIO role. However, these approaches may take time to produce results and many IT leaders fear being left behind or bypassed in the meantime.
And even if a CIO already has the necessary skills and experience for the digital age, they have many demands on their time. CIOs are busy and it is easy for them to get dragged into the day-to-day activities and issues associated with running the IT function and the organisation’s existing technology platform. And, if this happens, they run the risk of another executive stepping in to the fill the gap between what the business needs from its technology leader and what they are providing.
For both sets of CIOs I suggest using a checklist of five questions on weekly basis to test whether they have given enough time to the areas, subjects and activities that are becoming key to being a successful IT leader in the digital age. Hence, at the end of each week IT leaders should ask themselves whether they have:
1. Learnt something about the organisation's customers - ideally this will be achieved by spending time with actual customers but for some CIOs this will not always be possible. Hence, as a minimum, IT leaders should be aiming to spend time with customer-facing staff on a weekly basis to develop their understanding of the customer experience provided by their organisation together with the issues, needs and expectations that its customers have.
2. Networked with internal stakeholders - CIOs will no doubt spend time in meetings with their internal stakeholders each week. But that is not enough; they also need to spend time establishing and developing their relationships with colleagues from other functions outside of formal meetings. They need to invest time networking across the organisation and using every interaction to learn, share information or influence their colleagues.
3. Contributed to a non-IT issue or initiative - whether it is helping to resolve a customer query, discussing an operational issue, reviewing the performance of a business unit or helping to lead a business project, IT leaders need to be involved in areas outside of the IT function to raise their profile and broaden their knowledge and experience. And whilst initially that involvement may happen because technology input is required, ultimately the CIO’s contribution to such matters should extend beyond IT.
4. Looked outside the organisation - to gain access to new thinking and ideas, CIOs need to look beyond their organisation and its existing partners and suppliers, and engage more widely with a range of sources. This could involve meeting with the start-up community, potential new vendors, industry analysts, universities, peers from other organisations and industries, etc, or attending events, reading articles or connecting with people on social media. The key point being that IT leaders need to be regularly spending time looking at, and learning from, what is happening beyond their organisation, and applying the insights gained to create value for their business.
5. Thought about the future - the modern CIO needs to be proactive; they need to be looking at new and emerging technologies, products and services, and bringing those that they think may be relevant to the attention of the rest of the business. And they also need to be thinking about the potential trends, threats and opportunities their organisation may face in the future, and how technology can be used to address such areas. And this cannot be a one-off activity; digital markets move quickly and new solutions, products and services are being launched all the time. To stay ahead of the game, CIOs need to ensure they think about the future on a regular basis and not just when they develop their strategy or produce their budget.
Of course, this is not a definitive list and there is a lot more to being a CIO in the digital age than these five areas. But it is a starting point and it is an exercise that takes just a few minutes to complete (something even the busiest CIO should be able to do). And, if an IT leader can answer yes to each of the questions, then they be confident that they are at least heading in the right direction in terms of focusing on the right areas, contributing to the wider business and developing their profile, reputation and influence across the organisation.