What’s a CIO in 2023? Well, according to new global research from services provider Logicalis, CIOs now view themselves as digital evangelists, strategic advisors and business leaders. It’s not just about implementing tech these days, is the underlying message from the 1000 respondents surveyed.
So how much of that self-perception stands up to scrutiny on the ground? Perhaps, ‘work in progress’ might be best descriptor. Only 41% of respondents say they have “some level of responsibility” for business strategy, while an optimistic 80% think that business strategy will become “a bigger part” of their role over the next two years.
There’s a lot in the resulting report - The Meteoric Rise of the CIO (registration required) - that is worthy, but very familiar. CIOs aspiring to a seat around the boardroom table - or these days, on the board WhatsApp group and Zoom calls - has been a cri du couer for the tech executive down the decades. So there are some other CIO-related memes that come fully-formed to the fore. For example, the report argues:
Many CIOs are facing budget constraints that make it essential to do more with less.
That’s a finding that could have been published at any point over the past 20 years. “Do more with less”, is basically the top line of any CIO job description, no? Of course, in the Vaccine Economy of today that’s been given added emphasis. The study notes:
Technology leaders told us that organizations are concerned about economic turbulence in the aftermath of the pandemic…However, the answer is not simply cutting back or dialling back innovation. CIOs are responding to market challenges by developing strategies that drive growth, improve efficiency, and deliver the innovation increasingly demanded by customers, employees, and partners.
Let's getting innovating
Step forward, innovation, the Holy Grail of CIO buzzwords. The problem with this word is not that it doesn’t represent a genuinely-sought objective for all organizations, but that it’s overuse has rendered it generically essentially meaningless. Innovation means different things to different organizations, depending on their business sector, their corporate objectives and how far they’ve developed over time in terms of their technical and operational capabilities. As a catch-all phrase through, it’s a tool for the marketing team, not the tech team.
The Logicalis report states:
Our report found that 81% of CIOs are spending more time on innovation, with almost half (46%) reporting that innovation is part of how their job performance is measured.
How does that work in practice? Is there a metric to assess the “continuous innovation” that is apparently being demanded of half of the CIOs polled? If so, where does it start and end? How is it quantified? And how would such a metric be applied universally within an organization as a whole or even a tech team?
Over three-quarters of respondents (77%) reckon they’re spending “more time” on “selling ideas into the board”. Again, what does this mean on the ground? How does it work in practice? Where boards of directors used to say, ‘This is what we want to do’ and the tech team were looked at to enable it, is it now a case that CIOs are going to the business and saying, ‘Here’s what we can do with this latest silver bullet, please adjust our business strategy accordingly!’.
While there are a few cases where it might be imagined that the tech boys and girls coming up with a genuinely new piece of, OK, I’ll say it, innovation that sets the company on a new course with a fresh competitive advantage, routinely chasing or implementing the latest, greatest, brightest new thing has been shown time and again to be a recipe for trouble ahead.
I am encouraged that more than half of the CIOs polled (57%) cited improving the employee experience as a key priority, with 53% expecting to adopt new tech to enhance this:
Top of the experience wish list? Better connectivity (48%) guaranteed security for remote workers (45%), and new wellbeing initiatives (27%).
All good stuff, although the shift in recent months away from organizations embracing the ‘work from anywhere’ mindset, back to the ‘we’ve spent a lot of money on these offices, get yourselves back in here!’ mentality might mean re-evaluating those priorities for many.
It’s also great to see that around half of CIOs (49%) are taking sustainability seriously, checking carbon output and energy efficiency when choosing new suppliers etc. It’s to be hoped that this is an aspect of the evolved CIO role that survives the current macro-economic skittishness, but the fear must be that for many, saving the company and the share price will become more important in the short term than saving the planet in the long term.
The Logicalis report casts some doubt on how up-to-speed the business side of the organization actually is on the subject:
The challenge that CIOs face in boosting sustainability is a lack of skills, understanding and data in the wider business. While the business recognises that sustainability is important, perhaps urgent, there is a lack of understanding when it comes to creating and measuring the effectiveness of sustainability strategy.
At the conclusion of its report, Logicalis posits six questions that CIOs ought to be asking themselves:
1 - As a CIO, what action can I take to fine tune innovation in our organization?
2 - How can I build greater collaboration and harmonise with colleagues across the organization to build stakeholder engagement?
3 - What are the most significant risks to our organization and how can we build resilience to mitigate those risks?
4 - How well do we pitch to employees and customers, and how can technology help to transform and improve their experience in a way that differentiates our service?
5 - What steps can I take to build understanding, awareness and measurable action around sustainability that reach outside the IT organization?
6 - How can I rethink the way our organization engages with service providers to meet challenges around skills, performance, and efficiency?
Question six is obviously the sales pitch. The other five are certainly valid points for consideration.
As a report, I’d take issue with the idea that there’s anything particularly meteoric about the conclusions reached within. As noted above, many of the CIO agenda issues have remained essentially constant for a long time since, and will be so for a long time to come. The enduring nature of the debate around the CIO role and its terms of reference means that perhaps the terminology shifts - swap out ESG for CSR and see where that gets us? - but not much else does?