The CIO at a crossroads: Evolve or become a dead-end job

Oct 11, 20239 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Has the CIO title run its course or is the role more relevant than ever before? It all depends on whether you have what it takes to be a next-generation IT leader.

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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.

The bad news from early 2023 Forrester research suggests that many CIOs aren’t 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 “modern,” only 6% are “future fit,” with the speed, flexibility, and value-focus required from a transformative strategic digital leader today. 

This lack of readiness doesn’t look good. If most CIOs are still focused on operational concerns, does the business need a new digital leader with a title that’s 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.

“It probably has run its course a little bit,” he says. “Today, ‘information’ is only a piece of the role. A lot of what we do is about building capabilities. There’s also a transformation element to the role and another component about informing broader business strategy.”

Phipps 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.

That’s 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’s no longer the case: “The role has changed and grown as digital technologies have rapidly evolved and companies are faced with more challenges and opportunities.”

Line-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 — and generative AI more specifically — adds a further layer of complexity.

While 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?

Finding a home for the CIO

While 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.

Businesses 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.

“While things are now much more advanced, that core role — ensuring reliable, efficient, and secure business operations — is still crucially important,” he says. “There 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.”

That’s 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.

“Things are getting complicated,” she says. “If companies are transitioning to become technology companies, which most are, then digital leaders are going to have technical scars, and they’re going to have to know what they’re talking about to educate the rest of the board about the potential of technology.”

But even if technological knowledge is still crucial, there’s evidence to suggest that the requirements of modern digital leadership — including overseeing IT implementations, engaging with the business, and managing data and AI — mean the CIO title is not the most suitable moniker.

Many organizations have appointed chief data officers and chief digital officers to oversee areas that might once have fallen under the IT chief’s 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.

While these amendments are an interesting trend, it’s worth noting that extended job titles aren’t 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. “The whole title game is often just organizations trying to send a message about what’s important,” says Holman’s Phipps.

So, while variations in titles are appearing, the CIO — in whatever guise they’re presented — is still the executive who’s 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’s important not to fixate on acronyms rather than roles and responsibilities.

“Are we ever going to land on an actual title for this leader or are we going to continue adding letters infinitely?” she says. “I 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?”

Defining the next-generation digital leader

Omer 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.

Grossman says first-level CIOs, who focus on “keeping the lights on,” won’t survive. Second-level CIOs, where most CIOs reside right now, enable the business to have more efficient and effective processes. “And this is fine,” he says. “Unlike the IT manager at the first level, this CIO really understands the business and they align to its evolving objectives.”

But 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: “Harnessing the power of technology, change, and boosting the way the enterprise works — not just enabling the current business but affecting the way the business works.”

Grossman 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’s Richardson.

“A 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,” he says. “So, whatever the title, I think it’s critically important to have a role that oversees the full stack of technology across the business.”

Clare 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.

“You’ve got to keep an open mind,” she says. “People need to feel comfortable coming and having a conversation with you. You need a be a strong communicator, because — particularly in a business like this — there’s some strong personalities and they are very focused on their specific area.”

Sourcing fresh ideas also requires a strong awareness of emerging technologies. Lansley refers to this form of long-term horizon scanning as “keeping your finger on the pulse.” Harvey Nash’s 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.

“They will be looked to by the rest of the executive board as the person who understands the world of technology,” she says. “Every time a new hyped thing bubbles up — quantum, blockchain, or whatever — they’re going to be the person that is looked to for answers on what to do next.”

The 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’s 2023 State of the CIO survey. PepsiCo’s Richardson agrees that delivering creative solutions to business problems is the big priority.

“There will be one important shift that successful CIOs will make over the next 10 years — the role will have a massive focus on innovation,” he says. “Future CIOs will spend more time working on business strategy and developing new products and services that drive growth.”

For Adam Warne, CIO at River Island, the next-generation CIO will be characterized by strength in five key areas. First, they’ll be listeners who don’t assume they have all the right answers. Second, they’ll be guardians who ensure growth is manageable, safe, and secure.

Third, future CIOs will build strong partnerships with external businesses to tap the capabilities they can’t 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.

“Providing clarity of direction on business and technology strategy — and supporting teams of people to be as autonomous as possible, driving their own value like mini businesses in their own right — will be the only way to deliver at pace while retaining a cost base that’s appropriate,” he says.

Mark is a business writer and editor, with extensive experience of the way technology is used and adopted by blue-chip organizations. His experience has been gained through senior editorships, investigative journalism, and postgraduate research. Having formerly been an editor at Computing, Computing Business, and CIO Connect, Mark became a full-time freelance writer in 2014. He has developed a strong portfolio of editorial clients, including The Guardian, Economist Intelligence Unit, ZDNET, Computer Weekly, ITPro, Diginomica, VentureBeat, and Mark has a PhD from the University of Sheffield, and a master’s and an undergraduate degree in geography from the University of Birmingham.

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