33 CIO stock

CIOs who toiled in obscurity while keeping back-office operations running are about to be thrust into the spotlight and will be staring eyeball to eyeball with the all-important customer. At least, this is the main finding in an IBM survey of more than 1,600 CIOs.

"CIOs are increasingly being called upon to help their companies build new products and services and transform front-office capabilities," says Linda Ban, global C-suite study director at IBM's institute for business value, adding, "We're starting to see CIOs move outside of IT, maybe doing a stint in marketing."

ERP gives way to ROI

Times have certainly changed from the ERP days, when a CIO's career hung on awesome integration skills and deep knowledge of complex software. Today's CIO needs to be well-versed in new-fangled technology areas that drive sales, such as mobile that has become a touch point for reaching the emerging digital customers.

In IBM's survey, for instance, mobility solutions have soared to the top of CIOs' plans with 84% of respondents saying it's their top focus compared to 68% in 2009. More than 60% of CIOs intend to focus more heavily on improving the customer experience and getting closer to customers.

But the CIO holds an even more critical key to a company's future success in the brave new world of the digital customer. The CIO is perhaps the only executive in the building who can unearth mountains of customer data sprawled throughout the enterprise, says Ban. Coupled with data analytics tools, the CIO can provide valuable insight into a digital customer's buying habits.

CIOs must overcome feel and doubt

The new role of the CIO, however, presents a couple of challenges, Ban says.

For starters, CIOs will have to leave their comfort zone and assume a more visible and accountable position within the company. "Many CIOs have grown up and are grounded in technology," she says, adding that more than a few might now want to take on the new customer-facing role. "They're nervous."

In their new role, CIOs will also have to work more closely with the CMO than ever before, Ban says. The CIO and CMO have clashed in the past but now see their respective roles merging, the CIO becoming more of a marketer and the CMO becoming technically savvy.

"They need each other," Ban says.

There have been recent stirrings that the CMO's technology budget will eventually surpass the CIO's or that the CIO will one day report to the CMO. But the CIO is actually in a really good position because of the emergence of the digital customer and, consequently, the greater importance placed on new technology and customer data - all of which fall within the wheelhouse of the CIO.

"We've heard others saying that IT is going away or that the CIO role is not going to be relevant, but frankly, we can't see anything further from the truth," Ban says.