While most business execs will agree that digital services underpin a successful organisation, they've never really wanted to know about the plumbing. That's all changed in the past month. Suddenly, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, technology matters to everyone in business more than ever before.
Managers who had never done a video-conferencing call a couple of months ago now spend the majority of their working days on Zoom or Teams and cheerfully debate which is best. They might not want to spend hours a day managing people virtually, but they're grateful for the fact that they can.
And it's thanks to the CIO that businesses are able to carry on working. As the person responsible for delivering technology implementation, the CIO has a unique role in helping organisations to cope with the surge of interest in digital services.
As consultancy firm McKinsey suggests, CIOs have collectively faced the biggest challenge of their careers due to COVID-19. They've finally had the opportunity to prove their worth to the business – and it's a challenge that engaged IT leaders have accepted, says Simon Liste, chief information technology officer at the Pension Protection Fund (PPF).
"COVID-19 has demonstrated just how critical technology is to the business," he says.
McKinsey agrees, suggesting that CIOs who prove their worth to the business now have an opportunity to emerge with a reputation for effective leadership. Evidence suggests that quick decisions from CIOs are already helping to make a huge difference.
At the PPF, Liste has worked quickly to establish a secure remote-working strategy for the business. CIOs at organisations such as the Greater London Authority, Leeds City Council and the University of Sussex have also been able to create a remote-working strategy in days, not even weeks or months.
Implementations of cloud-based applications and virtual private networks are supporting effective and secure operations, even at a time when thousands of office workers are displaced to their homes due to social-distancing rules.
While McKinsey praises the effort of CIOs to keep their businesses running, the consultant suggests that an effective coping strategy for the crisis actually involves three distinct stages. The first is ensuring stability and business continuity; second, institutionalising new ways of working; and third, using best-practice lessons from the crisis to create lasting technology-led change.
CIOs who want to emerge with a new reputation for leadership will have to deliver results across all three stages. In most organisations, we're probably somewhere between the first and second wave right now. Most IT leaders will have created, in just a few weeks, a platform that allows the organisation to work remotely. The challenge during the second stage of the crisis will be to maintain it in the medium to long term.
During this second stage, CIOs will once again have to prove their new-found value to the business. Technology decisions that seemed right at the start of the crisis might look a mistake once IT teams have time to think about how such tools are maintained, especially when that support has to take place from home in many cases.
Leeds City Council chief digital and information officer Dylan Roberts confirms that any remote-working strategy is a work in progress. He says it's simply "not possible to think of everything".
Roberts says one lesson he's gleaned from the first wave of response to the crisis is that it's important for CIOs to think about high-level support in the second stage of the business response to the crisis. While as much as 95% of support work can be completed remotely, organisations must think about how to maintain an on-site technical presence for when more serious issues occur.
As economies start to relax their lockdown rules, some workers will have an opportunity to return to the workplace – and that's when the second stage of the crisis will start to blend into the third. At this stage, CIOs who have proved their leadership credentials thus far will then be involved in important debates about using technology to support lasting change in how and where we work.
IT leaders will have to work closely with their HR counterparts during this third period to develop a long-term transformation strategy. Many workers will continue to work from home due to social-distancing rules. The great work of IT teams at the start of this crisis has proven that businesses can use digital services to help employees work from any location in the longer term.
These positive experiences will have a lasting impact on companies, with lessons learnt from the crisis likely to lead to a permanent change in operating models. Emboldened by having seen the effectiveness of remote working in action, many chief executives will question why their businesses spend thousands of pounds maintaining desk space in central city locations.
That might also mean having some tough decisions ahead. Many of the financial implications of COVID-19 will be felt in the IT department, according to analyst Gartner. It suggests that cost cutting will be common as execs look to conserve cash where they can. For the CIO that might mean placing non-essential spend on hold, if only so they can afford to ramp up spending on laptops, monitors and mobile devices, software-as-a-service and VPNs to support remote workers. It might also involve reviewing all projects to see which, in the light of the changed situation, are now essential or need to be dropped.
CIOs will play a key role in any debates around the future shape of workspace. The underlying nature of technology to business operations means that IT leaders have already been charged in many organisations with thinking about how office space can be used more effectively. That's the case for Liste, who has been asked to take control of facilities management at the PPF.
He expects this increase of responsibility into other functional areas to be a growing trend in IT leadership going forward. Gartner also predicts CIOs will be as responsible for culture change as chief HR officers by 2021. That increased presence in C-level debates is likely to be crucial in the next year or so, as businesses focus on using technology to help them survive and thrive.
"That's about the culture and the transformation of an organisation and how it embraces digital – it's about always keeping your purpose in mind; thinking about what you do as a business and focusing on how technology can complement that purpose going forward," he says.