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The nature of the CIO role has changed over the last 10 years as digital transformation has moved to the top of the agenda. As a result, the definition of a successful IT organization and how it should be structured has changed as well. So what do CIOs think has changed or still needs to change?

Defining CIO Success in 2021

CIOs were clear about what success looks like today. "When I started in IT, simply having IT was considered a success. Over time, it became a matter of efficiency, process, appropriate standardization, reliability and quality. Now we're driven by business value on top of all of those,” said CIO David Seidl. Former CIO Joanna Young brought in a James Taylor song to describe what has changed: “Long ago and far away Five 9s were the definition of successful IT. Now the definition is ability to build, buy and deploy technology to drive sustainable business growth. For this reason, the IT success measures are more nuanced and subjective.”

CIOs are increasingly focused on the company’s business models. Describing what has changed for her, CIO Carrie Shumaker said, “I think back-office efficiency has become table stakes. Today, we must keep adding business value (normally without adding expense or at least, no additional salary expense). Efficiency is critical here because the same people support three times the number of systems as 7 years ago.”

Back-office investment isn't going anywhere. But as CIO Paige Francis said, “back-office investment still matters, but the IT organization isn't successful unless the whole business is successful. When a business recognizes you can't rock front-office (and beyond!) outcomes without back-office technology investments — that shows the effectiveness/influence of the CIO and team.”

How do CIOs refocus? Transforming IT into a front office line of business focus requires several changes, according to analyst Dion Hinchcliffe:

  • Board sign-off.
  • Platforming the business.
  • Reskilling the IT organization.
  • Adopting digital business models.
  • Cultivating an ecosystem.
  • Continuous change.
  • Becoming data-driven.
  • Revenue as a KPI.

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How Should the IT Structure Support the IT Mission Change?

Three things need change as the IT mission changes, said Seidl:

  1. IT needs to align to better interact with partners or customers in ways that help meet their business needs.
  2. IT needs to to be more flexible with a direction.
  3. IT needs to ensure it doesn't drop the ball on reliability

In this process, Francis said IT needs to transform roles where builders become growers and programmers become analysts. "There needs to be a heavy reliance on partners and team members need to find comfort in chaos (chaos as in change, not institutional nonsense or hustle culture life imbalance).”

CIO Deb Gildersleeve gets even more specific when she said, “What needs to change is fundamentally how IT structures itself. The most important change in the IT structure is for IT to align itself into the business. That alignment better supports digital transformation. There, also, needs to be more support for API development and management specifically for cloud systems.” Young adds on that there should be “less hands-on infrastructure, more solution design and development. There should also be less transactional contracts, but more partner relationship creation and maintenance.”

At this point, CIO Martin Davis raised many questions: "Should cloud change how IT is structured? The platforms have changed from mainframe to client server to networked to cloud over the years. Shouldn’t Transformation change how IT needs to conduct business? Where IT needs to focus? And corporate business models.” Given this, Shumaker suggested, “there will clearly be fewer sysadmins with cloud and outsourcing and there will be more product manager effort and vendor management. Meanwhile, apps support must understand and partner more deeply with business.”

In terms of where changes are needed, Hinchcliffe said in digital transformation, IT must shift to being great at:

  • Managing cloud costs, contracts and SLAs.
  • Integrating SaaS silos and best of breed apps into a coherent set of fast-evolving set of services.
  • Data management, data governance and data security.

Acquiring the IT Skills That the Future Demands

Seidl said it's important to “let your people experiment and learn. CIOs, on the other hand, should find ways to support experimentation. CIOs should support growth and hire folks who have had different experiences. They should build teams that take knowledge back and share it. And invest in formal training too.” Sacolick agreed, stating, “acquiring skills from the outside should be a last resort. Instead, CIOs should do three things: 1) promote learning cultures; 2) groom potential with internships and other educational partnerships; and 3) partner, especially for hard-to-find skills.

At this point, Gildersleeve said, “the pace of change is only going to increase, so I’ve found that a great way to keep up is to give those outside of IT the tools needed to create digital solutions and innovate. The IT Backlog is enormous, the demand for talent is continuing to grow, and it seems like nearly every IT department is over-strapped with demand. So finding tools that can be implemented throughout the organization and can help eliminate some of this pressure is on IT.”

Hinchcliffe confirmed that “talent remains the biggest challenge for IT today. Skills have a shorter shelf-life than ever. To cope, CIOs must set time and resources aside for cross and upskilling. Some this can come from growing the strategic skills needed for projects, pilots and online education.”

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Should CIOs Transform Themselves?

In their forthcoming book, “Beyond Digital:How Great Leaders Transform Their Organizations and Shape the Future," authors Mahadeva Matt Mani and Paul Leinwand suggest personal transformation opens the lens for business transformation. With that said, I didn’t expect to hear how difficult transformation is or the toll it takes on CIOs. Seidl said, “transformation is hard. Combining vision, strategy and drive with the ability to deal with setbacks and challenges takes a lot out of anybody. As a leader, you must learn to cut yourself space, and to lend yourself the grace you give your staff. Otherwise, CIO burnout and change exhaustion will take place.” This is partially why Geoffrey Moore argues, in “Zone to Win,” that CIOs only put one initiative into what he calls "the transformation zone." 

As part of leading transformation, Francis said “you have to learn how to get buy-in across wildly different populations. Without humility, authenticity and vision, short wins will quickly become one-hit-wonders. The art of engagement is learning it, practicing it and living it.” Gildersleeve added, “leaders need to change how they approach teams and hire more for potential. Team skills should now move beyond the traditional IT skillset.” CIO Isaac Sacolick added, “charter the team of teams. Apply best practices including Amazon's two-pizza rule to team size.”

For a CIO to lead digital transformation, said Hinchcliffe, they must be capable of:

  • Leading the business from the front.
  • Deeply knowing plus communicating the digital art-of-the possible.
  • Operating like an entrepreneur (or venture capitalist).
  • Being a talent magnet.
  • Smashing barriers to rapid change.
  • Focusing on customers as job one.

Ensure CIO Relevance

How do CIOs retain their personal relevance as the pace of change increases? Francis suggested that “CIOs push out of their own comfort zones. As CIOs, we preach change all the time. But for ourselves we need to keep challenging our own boundaries. CIOs need to stay real and show value.” Davis suggested CIOs should become “more business focused, by demonstrating that IT is a profit center, not a cost center.” He went on to say CIOs must “embrace new approaches, by empowering business users to create and build tools themselves using suitable platforms with security built-in.”

Hinchcliffe said the CIOs he has spoken to who sought personal growth and disruption have done so in many ways, including:

  • Cross-pollination in other fields.
  • Done a stint in the business.
  • Set yearly growth goals and retrospectives.
  • Taken time off.
  • Joined a startup.

In this process, Young said it is important that “CIOs do more learning and active listening. They should be technology agnostic but pragmatic about landscape. They should also do the right things — ethics, compliance and DEI. And finally, CIOs should be confident including knowing when they don't know.”

Parting Words

Digital transformation is making learning organizations a business requirement. CIOs need to make it possible for their organizations to grow. At the same time, they should not push too many things forward at once into the transformation zone. And lastly CIOs should stay close to their business counterparts and work to become an expert on their business counterparts and company’s customer’s needs.