CIOs get strategic

As the lines between technology and business blur, CIOs are stepping up their strategy role, taking ownership of new disciplines and serving as a key force behind digital innovation.

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Sarah Naqvi spent the greater part of her career at HMSHost International, a purveyor of food and beverage services for travelers, starting out in application development as a programmer analyst and working her way up the ranks to become CIO in 2013.

The early days of Naqvi’s CIO tenure was fairly traditional, focused on shoring up infrastructure, implementing enterprise systems, and ensuring operations were up to snuff. As HMSHost, a $3.3 billion company, began to embark on its digital roadmap, however, Naqvi’s CIO role took a new turn. Named executive vice president with a direct report to the CEO, Naqvi took ownership of critical business strategy in areas such as digital innovation and customer experience.

“About two years into our more formalized digital strategy, there was recognition by the business that technology should be used to its full capacity — not just for operational support, but as an enabler for business transformation,” Naqvi explains. “That’s when the focus of my role shifted from making sure operational systems were working efficiently to allowing us to use technology for strategic advantage and for moving the organization forward.”

The strategist emerges

Naqvi, like many CIOs on the front lines of digital transformation, is in the throes of a major reinvention, evolving from stewarding technology as a key enabler of the business to strategizing where and how technology becomes the defining pillar of the business. According to CIO’s 2019 State of the CIO research, which surveyed 683 IT leaders, 67 percent of respondents are devoting time to business strategist activities to help drive innovation, create new business models, and grow revenue opportunities. In comparison, only 53 percent of IT executives responding to last year’s survey spent significant time on business strategy activities, indicating an increased reliance on CIOs as digital business matures into next-phase implementations.

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More so than in 2018, today’s CIO agenda is consumed by strategic work like driving business innovation (35% compared with 28% last year) and developing and refining business strategy (23% compared with 21% in 2018). IT leaders are more actively identifying opportunities for competitive differentiation (21%), crafting new go-to-market strategies and technologies (19%), and immersing themselves in market trends and customer requirements to help identify new commercial opportunities (16%). And this move toward business strategist appears to be more than a temporary shift: The 2019 State of the CIO research found that 77 percent of responding IT leaders plan to devote more time to business strategy over the next three years compared with transformational work (74%) such as implementing new systems and architectures or functional responsibilities (58%) like security management or cost control initiatives.

Randy Gaboriault, CIO and senior vice president of innovation and strategic development at Christiana Care Health System, describes the shift as an ongoing evolution of the “CIO-plus” role. CIOs are well positioned to lead strategic transformation in the workplace, Gaboriault contends, as the ingredients to produce a product or service move from analog or physical components to digital elements. Gaboriault is not alone in this thinking — 88 percent of respondents to the 2019 State of the CIO survey agree that CIOs are more involved in leading digital transformation efforts than their business counterparts, and 91 percent agree that the CIO role is becoming more digital- and innovation-focused.

“The role of CIO has changed from strategy participant to strategy enabler — a deep influencer if not strategy shaper,” Gaboriault explains. “There’s a delta between conceptual strategic thinking and strategic planning as a process, and today, there is a recognition of my role having accountability for both.”

The strategist agenda

As part of their strategist agenda, CIOs are playing a central role in creating revenue-generating initiatives, including new products and services — a reality cited by 62 percent of survey respondents. Those CIOs either managing or participating in such ventures are stretching their wings by immersing themselves in understanding customer needs (55%), creating teams focused on innovation (47%), and creating business-case scenarios with defined costs and benefits (40%), the 2019 State of the CIO survey found.

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