The changing role of the CIO

A business leader is discussing matters with her team
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Historically, the role of the CIO has primarily been to oversee all computer and IT systems. They can help departments, such as human resources, find the right solutions and support them in the delivery and management of technologies, but at the heart of it this is still computer management. 

With many departments now running their own technology stacks, however, the CIO is playing an increasingly important role in orchestrating all parts of the business to ensure they are in tune. A CIO’s place in the C-suite has evolved from being a back office operations executive to an integral and vocal member of the board, whose influence can help drive business growth. 

The CIO’s status has been elevated due to the current tough economic environment, where companies have had to rein in their IT spending. The CIO can ensure that budgets are respected across the business and that the technologies that are being adopted have a positive impact on performance. This isn’t a flash in the pan, either; according to Foundry’s State of the CIO Study 2023, published in January, 77% of 837 IT leaders surveyed expect the CIO’s status to remain elevated regardless of cyclical trends. 

Seven in 10 respondents also anticipate the CIO being more involved in cybersecurity this year, while 55% believe data analysis, data privacy, and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to become bigger priorities. Just over half expect the CIO to focus time and resources on customer experience. 

Based on these trends, how different will the role of the CIO be five years from now? 

The changing role of the CIO and the need for softer skills 

The CIO’s role will continue to shift away from simply being a technology enabler to being a business enabler. 

Softer skills will likely be key to the CIO’s long-term success, concluded Deloitte’s 2023 Global Tech Leader Survey, published in March, which found that business leaders are three times as likely to select soft skills as important qualities than engineering capabilities. 

“I think it’s reasonable to assume that more CIOs will be expected to bring strategic guidance and foresight to lead the company forward, as new business dynamics emerge, new technologies enter the workplace, threats to IT estates evolve, and workforces become even more global,” says Raun Nohavitza, CIO at Delinea, a privileged access management solutions provider.

Michel van Reeuwijk, CIO at enterprise cloud application provider Unit4, holds a similar position, explaining: “Technical skills are changing from knowing what is under the hood to knowing what the technology is capable of. Understanding and envisioning what can be achieved with the various technologies is exactly the story a CIO needs to be able to articulate.”

According to the 650 business stakeholders surveyed by Delloitt, communication, industry and market knowledge, influence, and overall leadership are the top four skills a CIO should demonstrate when they start a job.

Leadership skills are particularly vital because the CIO will increasingly need to manage and work with the rest of the C-suite and the board, while also leading their teams in a manner that helps to retain them and attract new talent, says Marie Measures, CDIO at Apex Group, a global financial solutions provider. 

CIOs keeping their finger on the pulse

Despite these changes, the CIO will still still have to remember to maintain a healthy balance of both soft and technical skills. After all, they will need to be able to provide strong service delivery to manage the here and now, while also planning strategically for the medium-to-long term. 

“Too much focus on change will lead to technical debt; too much focus on service and the business won’t move forward,” argues Measures.

Wilson Chan, CEO and co-founder of Permutable AI, believes that “contrary to the notion that the CIO will require less technical knowledge and more soft skills, the reality is quite different”. 

In fact, he says, the CIO will have to keep abreast of emerging technologies and the latest developments in AI, blockchain, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT). This will be essential if the CIO is to lead technology-driven initiatives successfully and be able to make informed decisions.

For example, as cyber attacks become more sophisticated, the role of the CIO will include staying on top of the latest technological developments and software needed to ensure all systems and data are protected. Additionally, as businesses come under more pressure from their stakeholders to be greener, the CIO will have to leverage technology to optimise resource utilisation, reduce waste and drive overall efficiency throughout business operations. 

The role of the CIO in understanding AI’s capabilities 

Given the frenzy around ChatGPT and other generative AI, it’s no surprise that artificial intelligence is expected to shape the future of business. Large language models (LLMs) will be used for tasks such as generating documentation on business processes, designing training programs, and writing code. 

“The impact of AI cannot be overstated. AI is poised to be the catalyst for the single biggest change in company structure transformation and the competitive landscape,” argues Chan. 

Although AI has been around for some time, it’s only now reaching a pivotal point where the technology’s potential benefits and capabilities, as well as its risks and problems, are becoming clearer. 

“The role of the CIO is to understand what AI is capable of and how it can be turned into a competitive or strategic advantage. Just like they would with any other emerging technology,” says van Reeuwijk.

“It will strengthen the potential for the CIO to become a strategic leader,” he adds. 

AI could become a top decision maker at boardroom level in the future, but it won’t threaten the CIO’s position – at least not for now, according to Nohavitza. “I don’t see the CIO role becoming obsolete. It’ll just change and evolve as technologies do.” 

Rich McEachran

Rich is a freelance journalist writing about business and technology for national, B2B and trade publications. While his specialist areas are digital transformation and leadership and workplace issues, he’s also covered everything from how AI can be used to manage inventory levels during stock shortages to how digital twins can transform healthcare. You can follow Rich on LinkedIn.