These are testing times for CIOs. A complex mix of macroeconomic instability, technological advancements, and digital disruption has businesses in search of IT leaders who can rise to the occasion and turn what could be intractable challenges into business opportunities.\n\nThe bad news from early 2023 Forrester research suggests that many CIOs aren\u2019t ready to meet these fresh demands. Most CIOs (58%) are still in what Forrester calls the traditional mode of leading IT. And while 37% of CIOs are considered \u201cmodern,\u201d only 6% are \u201cfuture fit,\u201d with the speed, flexibility, and value-focus required from a transformative strategic digital leader today. \n\nThis lack of readiness doesn\u2019t look good. If most CIOs are still focused on operational concerns, does the business need a new digital leader with a title that\u2019s reflective of fresh roles and responsibilities? Jarrod Phipps, CIO at auto specialist Holman, says a debate about the relevance of the CIO title is fair game.\n\n\u201cIt probably has run its course a little bit,\u201d he says. \u201cToday, \u2018information\u2019 is only a piece of the role. A lot of what we do is about building capabilities. There\u2019s also a transformation element to the role and another component about informing broader business strategy.\u201d\n\nPhipps says CIOs of the past were like plumbers who ensured data ran through pipes. Today, CIOs are less like plumbers and more like enablers. The modern digital leader provides a quick and agile platform that supports great employee and customer experiences.\n\nThat\u2019s a sentiment that resonates with Nigel Richardson, SVP and CIO for Europe at PepsiCo. While the CIO of the past focused on managing IT operations, that\u2019s no longer the case: \u201cThe role has changed and grown as digital technologies have rapidly evolved and companies are faced with more challenges and opportunities.\u201d\n\nLine-of-business professionals can now use the cloud to buy their own IT solutions on demand. The growing use of low-code software development platforms meanwhile puts tech-creation capabilities into the hands of workers outside IT. The rapid rise of artificial intelligence \u2014 and generative AI more specifically \u2014 adds a further layer of complexity.\n\nWhile a CIO might have traditionally overseen all technology purchases within the enterprise, the ready availability of high-powered technology means CIOs could be at risk of circumnavigation. After all, who needs a middle layer of IT management when you can either go straight to the vendor or build your own systems and services on demand?\n\nFinding a home for the CIO\n\nWhile the CIO role is undoubtedly changing, no business can afford to let their staff go out and buy whatever technology they want. The potential risks of leaving professionals to their own devices range from burgeoning costs in terms of cloud provision to the fear of sensitive enterprise data being pushed into public AI systems without due care and attention.\n\nBusinesses need someone to ensure advanced digital technologies are exploited in a safe, secure, and cost-effective manner. And the person within the enterprise who holds that experience is still the CIO, says Richardson.\n\n\u201cWhile things are now much more advanced, that core role \u2014 ensuring reliable, efficient, and secure business operations \u2014 is still crucially important,\u201d he says. \u201cThere is certainly a very wide scope of functional and technical disciplines for modern CIOs to understand, such as cybersecurity, cloud infrastructure, AI and machine learning, end-user experience design, enterprise architecture, and more.\u201d\n\nThat\u2019s a belief that chimes with Lily Haake, head of technology and digital executive search at recruiter Harvey Nash. While the CIO role has shifted from day-to-day operational concerns, technical abilities will remain crucial as businesses increasingly make use of emerging technologies.\n\n\u201cThings are getting complicated,\u201d she says. \u201cIf companies are transitioning to become technology companies, which most are, then digital leaders are going to have technical scars, and they\u2019re going to have to know what they\u2019re talking about to educate the rest of the board about the potential of technology.\u201d\n\nBut even if technological knowledge is still crucial, there\u2019s evidence to suggest that the requirements of modern digital leadership \u2014 including overseeing IT implementations, engaging with the business, and managing data and AI \u2014 mean the CIO title is not the most suitable moniker.\n\nMany organizations have appointed chief data officers and chief digital officers to oversee areas that might once have fallen under the IT chief\u2019s compass. Some CIOs, meanwhile, have adopted the CTO title to emphasize their technological aptitude in a digital age. Other CIOs now have words like digital, data, technology, or transformation in their titles to create CDIO or CTIO acronyms that demonstrate their readiness for change.\n\nWhile these amendments are an interesting trend, it\u2019s worth noting that extended job titles aren\u2019t always the handiwork of CIOs. Sometimes, heritage enterprises change titles to emphasize that their business is moving into new areas, such as digital and transformation. \u201cThe whole title game is often just organizations trying to send a message about what\u2019s important,\u201d says Holman\u2019s Phipps.\n\nSo, while variations in titles are appearing, the CIO \u2014 in whatever guise they\u2019re presented \u2014 is still the executive who\u2019s being asked to turn intractable business challenges into new digital opportunities. And while we can debate whether CIO is the most suitable job title for the modern digital leader, Haake says it\u2019s important not to fixate on acronyms rather than roles and responsibilities.\n\n\u201cAre we ever going to land on an actual title for this leader or are we going to continue adding letters infinitely?\u201d she says. \u201cI think eventually we are going to have to create a strong definition. What skills is the digital leader of the future going to need and what characteristics will they need further down the line?\u201d\n\nDefining the next-generation digital leader\n\nOmer Grossman, global CIO at CyberArk, still likes the CIO title and believes it remains relevant. But he thinks many IT chiefs might need to go through a subtle adjustment in roles and responsibilities to thrive.\n\nGrossman says first-level CIOs, who focus on \u201ckeeping the lights on,\u201d won\u2019t survive. Second-level CIOs, where most CIOs reside right now, enable the business to have more efficient and effective processes. \u201cAnd this is fine,\u201d he says. \u201cUnlike the IT manager at the first level, this CIO really understands the business and they align to its evolving objectives.\u201d\n\nBut the third layer, which is where Grossman says all CIOs should aim to be, is home to digital leaders who disrupt the organization in a productive way: \u201cHarnessing the power of technology, change, and boosting the way the enterprise works \u2014 not just enabling the current business but affecting the way the business works.\u201d\n\nGrossman says successful CIOs of the future will help the rest of the organization to make the most of IT, security, data analytics, and AI. These forward-looking CIOs will engage with the rest of the business, offer advice on technology purchases, and build strong ecosystems of internal and external support, agrees PepsiCo\u2019s Richardson.\n\n\u201cA successful CIO is a business partner who helps to shape strategy by identifying the areas where technology can generate the most value for their company,\u201d he says. \u201cSo, whatever the title, I think it\u2019s critically important to have a role that oversees the full stack of technology across the business.\u201d\n\nClare Lansley, CIO at Aston Martin Formula One, also notes the strategic importance of the CIO role, stating great IT chiefs make their voices heard appropriately and constructively. Great ideas can come from anywhere, both inside and outside the firm. Lansley says successful next-generation leaders will be approachable.\n\n\u201cYou\u2019ve got to keep an open mind,\u201d she says. \u201cPeople need to feel comfortable coming and having a conversation with you. You need a be a strong communicator, because \u2014 particularly in a business like this \u2014 there\u2019s some strong personalities and they are very focused on their specific area.\u201d\n\nSourcing fresh ideas also requires a strong awareness of emerging technologies. Lansley refers to this form of long-term horizon scanning as \u201ckeeping your finger on the pulse.\u201d Harvey Nash\u2019s Haake picks up a similar theme, saying successful CIOs of the future will be executives who help the business exploit a never-ending pipeline of innovation.\n\n\u201cThey will be looked to by the rest of the executive board as the person who understands the world of technology,\u201d she says. \u201cEvery time a new hyped thing bubbles up \u2014 quantum, blockchain, or whatever \u2014 they\u2019re going to be the person that is looked to for answers on what to do next.\u201d\n\nThe good news is most CIOs recognize this requirement to help the business make the most of emerging technology. IT chiefs believe their No. 1 task by 2026 will be driving innovation, according to CIO.com\u2019s 2023 State of the CIO survey. PepsiCo\u2019s Richardson agrees that delivering creative solutions to business problems is the big priority.\n\n\u201cThere will be one important shift that successful CIOs will make over the next 10 years \u2014 the role will have a massive focus on innovation,\u201d he says. \u201cFuture CIOs will spend more time working on business strategy and developing new products and services that drive growth.\u201d\n\nFor Adam Warne, CIO at River Island, the next-generation CIO will be characterized by strength in five key areas. First, they\u2019ll be listeners who don\u2019t assume they have all the right answers. Second, they\u2019ll be guardians who ensure growth is manageable, safe, and secure.\n\nThird, future CIOs will build strong partnerships with external businesses to tap the capabilities they can\u2019t build internally. Fourth, CIOs will be independent judges who use their tight grip on data to provide non-biased insight for business decisions. Finally, the great CIOs of the future will be leaders, says Warne.\n\n\u201cProviding clarity of direction on business and technology strategy \u2014 and supporting teams of people to be as autonomous as possible, driving their own value like mini businesses in their own right \u2014 will be the only way to deliver at pace while retaining a cost base that\u2019s appropriate,\u201d he says.