Re-tuning the role of tomorrow's CIO

Colt research addresses how CIOs are handling IT transformation

This is a contributed piece by Nick Robinson, Client Director at Colt Technology Services


Your business, your people, and IT itself is changing beyond recognition. Gartner recently made the claim that every employee is a digital employee; enjoying technology, recognising its relevance to business and applying their own technological knowledge to streamline work. As such, IT professionals are no longer seen as just ‘the IT guy’ but are expected to step up to take a valued and strategic role within the wider business.

With this re-shaped job description, IT leaders are expected to juggle smooth day-to-day operations whilst ‘digitally remastering’ business units to respond to the new digital economy.

Whether shaping cross-departmental digital initiatives; consulting on new tools; or leading pivotal company-wide projects – the new CIO is the lynchpin for digital transformation at all levels. And should there be any stumbles or IT challenges along the way, the spotlight most definitely shines on them. Such pressures are often just an accepted part of the job but overall how are these mounting expectations impacting the individual?

This updated role should, in theory, equal a new mind-set. Yet a new study commissioned by Colt raised the point that the majority (68%) of CIOs are still making pressured decisions based on their own instinct and experience, above any other factor. What’s more, 76% admit their intuition can be at odds to other sources, such as big data reports or advice from third parties. While this is understandable given the fast pace of change and potentially contradictory data on offer – it may also indicate a more deep-seated issue to be addressed.

What is leading to the potential dependence on tried-and-trusted decision making? A greater pressure is certainly on their shoulders, so one could attribute this to an increased feeling of personal risk. This was a sentiment also unearthed in Colt’s ‘Moments that Matter’ study, where more than three-quarters (76%) of senior IT leaders felt  they were under more individual risk when making decisions, as IT evolves into this more strategic role. After all, if the stakes run high and the individual is pressured to make the right decision that will result in business and career success – natural reactions and professional judgement are bound to trump potentially conflicting insights or advice.  

However, the question remains: is the IT professional making best use of the expertise around them? Are they making the most of internal – and to some extent – external expertise to cope with this massive digital transformation?

Whilst CIOs are already adapting their way of thinking – focusing less on operational matters and instead majoring on delivering value to the business – there is still a concerning pattern which emerges from the research. The findings suggest that some IT departments are still acting in an insular way, making their own IT-based decisions. When dealing with issues or risks, the IT professional tends to consult with others in their department, rather than the wider business.

This approach worked well when the number one objective of the IT department was to prioritise the internal needs and pressures within a business. But in todays’ digital world, innovation is being led by the needs of the end-customer and the market.  IT investment is increasingly occurring across the enterprise, with more than 21% of IT investment taking place outside of the official IT budget. Lines of business leaders have their own priorities and budgets. Their IT needs must keep up with market demands and the increasing pace of change.

As such, the modern day CIO is expected to become a trusted advisor across the business and to take the time to learn from counterparts in other divisions – their priorities, struggles and customer needs. Fostering solid relationships enables insights on different functions, but also provides the CIO with a sense of the business tolerance to risk. With this knowledge they can help prioritise which projects the company should focus on - prototyping, piloting or roll outs - identifying the few key business areas that will make the most impact.

In an age of digital transformation, it is interesting and understandable that IT decisions are often still based on instinct and experience. While not a bad approach in itself, it may be dangerous to apply old solutions to new problems or to approach diverse and new challenges in exactly the same way.

Solid communication and collaborative approaches can promote enthusiasm around new forms of digital transformation. Most importantly, collaboration presents a common goal to drive innovation and create advantage, no matter whose idea it was originally or how it came about.  For the CIO, this approach helps to relieve the pressure of relying on IT-driven decision making, and help them to potentially grow into a new generation of IT leader – as one CIO put it recently “facing the business rather than facing the technology”.