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The role of the CEO is changing. In Gartner’s 2018 CIO Survey, 95% of CIOs said that they expected their jobs to be changed or ‘remixed’ due to digitisation, with the role becoming less about managing IT operations, and more about acting as a change leader throughout the business. Meanwhile, in IDG’s 2018 State of the CIO survey, 84% of the CIOs surveyed had responsibility for areas of the business outside traditional IT, and particularly in innovation and transformation. When talk turns to performance success criteria, top CIOs are reporting a greater focus on business outcomes rather than IT delivery.

Leaders across many organisations have come to recognise that technology is a primary driver for business transformation, and that it’s the shift into digital or digital-enhanced processes, products and services that will drive future success. This places the CIO – the executive with the strongest grasp of technology and the responsibilities of managing it – in a central position. The IDG survey found that nearly half of IT leaders surveyed now reported directly to the CEO and that CIOs were also becoming more involved with customers; 71% now met external customers directly, while 58% expected such interactions to increase over the next twelve months.

A recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that CIOs are working to develop a broader understanding of their business as a whole; 76% of IT leaders believing they need to collaborate more with customer service, and two-thirds say the same of marketing. The same survey showed that, when leaders from other departments are asked, 39% say their responsibilities now overlap or merge with IT to a significant degree, putting IT ahead of any other business function.

At times, this expanded role can be a double-edged sword. The CIO has become part of major business conversations and has more potential to make a significant impact – which must be good for their career. 

Yet the new role can add new complexities and pressures. In the words of Pete Swabey, of the Economist Intelligence Unit, ‘Globally, continuous digital transformation leaves IT executives in a strong position with growing responsibilities. But it has required a shift in focus in how they work, how they collaborate with colleagues and the skills they need in order to thrive.’

Building an organisation that thrives on continual transformation isn’t easy. As Swabey notes, ‘the need for new core processes, roles and skills is felt more heavily in their [the IT] department than anywhere else.’

To make the challenge harder, CIOs are expected to handle these new responsibilities while still maintaining existing operations. IDG’s State of the CIO 2018 survey found that nearly three quarters of tech leaders in EMEA found it a technology challenge to balance business innovation and operational excellence. In an era where companies face increasing data protection and compliance headaches, not to mention ever more complex security threats, these conflicting pressures are likely to build.

That’s the bad news – here’s the good. The same disruptive technologies and services that are driving the transformation agenda are also giving CIOs the tools they need to handle their expanded role. CIOs can outsource IT tasks or bring in AI and security from the cloud. They don’t need to build and manage new infrastructure to drive transformation or even to maintain existing operations; they can bring in platforms to support both. AI, Machine Learning and process automation have enormous potential to reduce existing workloads and give the IT team more scope to innovate. There’s no reason or need to reinvent the wheel when leading SaaS and PaaS companies already deliver pre-built, cloud-based platforms that have these features – plus unrivalled security – built-in.

As Andy Rowell-Jones, of Gartner’s CIO and Executive Leadership Research team puts it, ‘in this new world, CIO success is not based on what they build, but the services that they integrate. The IT organisation will move from manufacturer to buyer, and the CIO will become an expert orchestrator of services.’

The CIO can step up and become a key driver of innovation and success, but only if they can take responsibility for that push across the enterprise, and work closely with the other business units.

By collaborating across departments, developing an understanding of their needs and pain points, the CIO becomes better equipped to find and deliver solutions that align with wider business strategy. The technology is there at their disposal – they just need to confidence and expertise to use it, and lead the organisation in its use.