by Cristina Lago

What does the future CIO role look like?

Apr 16, 2019
IT LeadershipIT Skills

The role of the CIO is a fast-evolving one. Which skills should the CIO of the future look for?

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CIOs no longer only deal with the IT dimension of an organisation. The speed in which digital transformation is affecting businesses has placed many of them in a much more strategic position.

Here we examine what changes CIOs can expect in their roles over the coming years.

Moving beyond tech

According to PwC’s report ‘The Changing Role of the CIO’ CIOs will take on a broader, more strategic role within the business that does not rely exclusively on technology implementation.

Instead of focusing on budgets, future CIOs are likely to spend more time on meeting technology services with the business needs to achieve its goals, competing effectively and responding to the market demands.

“The traditional role of the CIO in terms of looking after the IT infrastructure has to evolve into a hygiene factor,” David Tay, CIO of precision manufacturing company Beyonics, told CIO ASEAN. “It’s like when you build a house: you need plumbing, but once the house is built, you want to use it. You don’t want to worry about the pipes as they should be there doing their work by themselves. Similarly, the role of the CIO today should be focused on how I make use of technology to make the business grow.”

Gartner’s 2018 CIO Agenda report reveals duties of 84% of CIOs at top-performing digital businesses  have dramatically expanded beyond the IT function, with innovation and transformation being their prime responsibilities now.

The implementation of a digital culture across all business units is also a new responsibility for many CIOs. However, this is not always an easy task, and requires making a strong case on why digital is the way forward.

Voranuch Dejakaisaya, Chief Information and Operations Officer at Thai Bank of Ayudhya, thinks that although promoting a digital culture is essential to guarantee business success, it’s also a challenge.

“The biggest challenge is the cultural one and the adoption of a digital culture as an organisation: we have to let people know why the move to digital is the way forward,” she told CIO ASEAN. “The greatest obstacle is not always about the technology but the people’s skills, how can you turn your people into something new.”

Different waves of CIOs

Being a CIO in 2000, the year of the dawning of the so-called ‘third digital wave’, was quite different from the roles and responsibilities of CIOs today.

Whereas the traditional CIO role meant that they were the providers of IT with a focus on development and operations, the new model envisions the CIO as a broker and orchestrator of services.

David Higginson, CIO at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, thinks there has been three waves of the CIO to date.

“In the ’80s and ’90s it was kind of a plumber-type person who got the network working, got the servers running, got the emails going, and that was their job,” he explained during an interview at the Health IT Conference in 2018.

“Next, in the 2000s, we got into having great big budgets and being tasked by the organisation to ‘Go make this thing happen.’ I think a lot of CIOs today did really well in that project management, system implementation-type field.”

The third wave is closely intertwined with business strategy – making decisions with other senior leadership executives to create a path forward.

Speaking to CIO ASEAN, Alex Tan, Group Chief Digital and Technology Officer at SingPost, explained his shift from backroom operations to a more visible part of the organisation and how the business element is as essential to his role as technology is to the wider company.

“There is a definite shift from a backroom, tech-focused role into one that is focused on being a credible partner to business colleagues,” he said.

“Technology is a crucial pillar in many industries today compared to a decade ago – it will reshape business boundaries and differentiate great companies from ordinary ones by way of ‘disrupting traditional incumbents’ that may be too slow to change, lacking digital and technological talent or financial resources due to competing demands.”

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 100% of roles in IT will require an intermediate level of proficiency in business acumen to effectively execute on the digital business strategy.

Business leaders and strategists

An example of the importance of IT operations as business strategy enabler is provided by Yeo Beng Huay, Chief Information Officer at Singapore Customs, who explained to CIO ASEAN how the activities from the customs department rely heavily on technology.

“IT is integral to customs operation,” the CIO said. “For the past 20-plus years, IT in customs has evolved from backroom engineering to serving beyond regulatory needs. We started off with a handful of resources, and relied heavily on the technical capabilities of our system integrators to manage our system. Today, we have more deep-skilled engineers to work closely with the system integrators, and troubleshoot problems together.”

The CIO job will continue to become less technical and operational and more focused on business performance at a strategic level.

The focus of the CIO role will change from bottom to top, with more emphasis on outward-focused activities that create business value and help streamline IT operations. Close engagement with the customer base and listening to users’ demands will also be crucial. Business success will heavily depend on how the technology introduced is meeting consumer demands.

“From an organisation point of view we have always looked at how to maximise technology as a form of differentiation”, said at the time Gabriel Tho, COO at Y3 Technologies and CIO of YCH. “Technologies have to integrate and provide a higher value to our clients especially since some clients we work with are not necessarily high-tech. The question is how to introduce these technologies and create real value for our clients.”

The future CIO will hold the key to unlocking competitive advantage, business benefits and relevant customer engagement, and with this shift comes growing pressure on, and higher expectations of, the IT function.

There’s nothing more frustrating for senior management and colleagues than lack of business drive and business understanding. If CIOs are unable to develop an in-depth knowledge of their industry and their clients and customers, they are irremediably doomed to fail.