We need to talk about CIOs

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The next six to 12 months will be a decisive period for Australia. After the country's GDP experienced one of its most significant declines in decades, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is predicting a slow recovery. Despite this, there are reasons to be optimistic. The RBA forecasted a smaller drop than initially feared, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks Australia's economy as one of the G20's most resilient.

Yet, optimism won't be enough. There's an urgent demand for smarter collaboration and bold, technology-led change. Now more than ever, CIOs and their teams have a critical role to play in shepherding organisations out of the doldrums and helping to rebuild the Australian economy. Many have demonstrated their business value during the transition to home working.   

The only problem is that too many CIOs are focused on the wrong things.

Rethinking the CIO function

When I started my career many moons ago, the role of the CIO was pretty clear-cut: keep costs down, outsource wherever possible and prioritise stability above all else. 

That approach is no longer viable because almost every organisation has become a technology business to some extent. And yet many CIOs I see are still focused on outdated metrics and priorities, leaving them at risk of being left behind or replaced by Chief Digital Officers or Chief Data Officers as organisations look to fast-track technology decisions.

The risk here isn’t just the demise of CIO influence. It has the potential to fracture decision-making, inhibiting the ability of businesses to transform and evolve.

The risks of fractured decision-making

Too often I see business leaders circumvent their internal technology teams when it comes to designing and implementing new software or systems. Their reasons are clear: they recognise the need for faster, more automated and more efficient systems. Their clients, boards and employees demand smarter ways of working. And yet, the technology team is absent, relegated to traditional tasks such as maintaining infrastructure, vendor management or budgeting.

This is not always the case, of course. Some of the most successful transformation projects we’ve run with clients have involved a tight connection between business leaders, internal technology teams and technology partners.

This approach is superior for a number of reasons. Business leaders have confidence the technology they have selected will integrate well with existing systems. Technology partners are able to work directly with fellow technologists to avoid pitfalls and delays. And CIOs can be confident the new technology fits with their overarching enablement strategy and architectures.

Change management is still the most critical factor in digital transformation projects. And that requires a focused and coordinated working relationship between all stakeholders.

Driving organisational change and business value

The idea that CIOs should influence business strategy isn't new, and many CIOs have been negotiating relationships between the technology function and revenue or operational functions for years. They have a range of skills and insights beyond technology, from commercial acumen to the diplomatic strength necessary to forge organisational change.

CIOs still need to combine these strengths—it's more important than ever. Even before the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a correlation between the capability of an organisation's technology function and the depth of its CIO's involvement in shaping strategies and agendas. Seeing the CIO as someone who keeps the lights on, with a narrow focus on managing costs, risks and ensuring the technology works, is no longer just outdated—it's an existential business risk.

A business that prioritises the status quo over evolution is one that's ripe for disruption, and the stakes are getting higher. CIOs urgently need to apply the financial, commercial, operational and influencing skills not only to identify what needs to change but, more importantly, to make it happen.

Back to basics

At the same time, the CIO can't drift away from the need to understand technology. While the role of CIO undoubtedly relies on an ability to manage large and sometimes lengthy investment programs at scale, project management and oversight should not be their primary skill set.

Software and technology talent are increasingly the differentiators protecting companies from disruption and irrelevance. And the consumerisation of tech means business leaders, boards and employees are increasingly savvy about the options available for moving in new directions, as well as getting work done more efficiently and enjoyably.

CIOs must ensure they stay in touch with the rapidly changing technology environment, which may involve looking outside the dominance of traditional players. They need a keen grasp on software, data and how these elements fit together. And while management approaches cycle between insourcing and outsourcing operational elements, businesses should look to ensure specialist skills in software, data and hands-on architecture are integral to the team structure.

Everyone has a role to play in Australia's response during the next 12 months and beyond. CIOs and technology leaders have a unique opportunity and responsibility to steer organisations toward the software and data-driven adaptability necessary for short-term recovery and long-term growth.

Those CIOs adept at balancing business and leadership skills with a deep understanding of emerging technologies will be best-placed to steer their organisations through this period of uncertainty and beyond. It's not an easy job, but it will be a pivotal one.

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