From crisis to innovation: The new priorities of the CIO

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Now, more than ever, CIOs need to walk the line between the operational and strategic sides of a delicate role. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they were leading radical transformation initiatives that overhauled everything from supply chain operations to the customer experience. Their role had grown to cover not just IT but the wider business strategy. With the pandemic – and accompanying economic downturn – priorities have changed.

For many, long-term strategy has gone on the back burner. Recent research from IDG shows that cost control and expense management have become the top concerns, along with improving IT operations and systems performance. Leading change efforts and driving innovation are still long-term objectives, but CIOs are having to contend with limited resources. Only a quarter of those surveyed by IDG think that IT budgets will increase in the coming year.

How, then, should CIOs respond to the new reality? By realising that crisis management and transformation aren’t mutually exclusive. Approximately 61% of those surveyed in IDG’s study said that the effects of the pandemic have accelerated digital transformation imperatives, while 58% agreed that the shift to working from home had forced the creation of new and more efficient workflows. Forward-looking CIOs have realised that the answer isn’t to retreat to existing models, but to drive initiatives that support business continuity now, while providing a platform for future growth, promoting and championing a new culture, one that is more appreciative of change and acceleration.

At the UK’s University of Sussex, for example, IT director Jason Oliver and his team spent a year building a digital transformation plan to be rolled out over coming years. When the pandemic hit, he drove the implementation through in a matter of weeks. Now the university is able to keep virtual learning going while a return to site strategy for the campus is still evolving.

Meanwhile, other CIOs are aggressively testing and marketing new services, or working with the business units to shift the weight of the business online.

“The value of digital channels, products and operations is immediately obvious to companies everywhere right now,” says Gartner senior director analyst, Sandy Shen, calling the crisis “a wake-up call for organisations that have placed too much focus on operational needs”. Elsewhere, analysts at McKinsey cited one example of a fintech CIO who saw the pandemic as an opportunity to aggressively test and market an online payment product, recognising it was “now or never” to get the product to succeed at scale.

This doesn’t happen without strategy and a lot of hard work. CIOs need to communicate, fighting uncertainty and confusion with clear messaging to both the C-suite and employees. They need to ensure stable operations through a combination of testing and focused improvements. This is no time for reactive firefighting, but for proactive work to make the business more resilient.

CIOs also need to work with other business leaders to look at business practices and processes, and redefine them for the ‘new normal’, which may also mean working with employees to ensure that new behaviours are adopted. They need to be pragmatic, spending time and resources on the most crucial projects, even when it means postponing other initiatives that align with specific business goals.

And while they’re managing all this, CIOs also need to zero in on the needs of the customer, to see if they need to add capacity to cope with demand or roll-out chatbots and self-service tools. Many CIOs already understand this. IDG’s study found that over three quarters of CIOs were likely to invest in new technologies to improve customer engagement and satisfaction in the post-pandemic world. Cloud services support all these endeavours, whether enabling business resiliency or transforming the customer experience. In fact, a 2019 IDG report for Dell found that enterprises using cloud computing were more likely to be successful in their CX initiatives, with the most advanced cloud users the most successful of all.

Perhaps most importantly, CIOs need to keep anticipating what’s coming next, looking at how the IT investments that they’re making now can benefit the business in the future, driving cost-efficiencies and giving it the flexibility and agility it needs to innovate and grow. The world has changed and will change further, and the CIO’s real priority must be ensuring that IT can power the business forward through the next few turns.

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