CIOs have a massive opportunity ahead. But there's a new threat on the horizon, too

IT leaders need to focus on how they deliver the outcomes the business requires. Or someone else might just step in.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The outlook for CIOs is positive right now: demand for their skills is up, IT budgets are rising, and the board is keen to see where digital transformation takes the business next. 

For tech chiefs with the right focus, the opportunities to make a long-term mark on behalf of the business are huge, says Michael Cole, CTO of golf's European Tour and Ryder Cup.

The role of a modern IT leader is not necessarily to deliver the deep dives into technology, says Cole. Success comes from delivering the business of technology – and that's something he's very passionate about, both as a leader and as a CTO. 

"I think the role of the tech chief has changed immeasurably in the last few years and that concept of managing the business of technology is something that I think represents the key characteristic of a future CIO," he says. 

SEE: What is digital transformation? Everything you need to know about how technology is reshaping business

Analyst Gartner also says IT chiefs have an opportunity to start worrying less about operational delivery and more about the outcomes that the business wants to see.

John-David Lovelock, research vice president at Gartner, says smart CIOs will now move beyond the critical, short-term projects that have dominated the past two years and instead focus on long-term business objectives. 

CIOs who want to grab the opportunity for business-focused change will be backed by significant funding. Worldwide IT spending is projected to total $4.5 trillion in 2022, an increase of 5.1% from 2021, according to Gartner's latest forecast. The analyst says economic recovery with high expectations for digital prosperity will continue to boost technology investments.

Such is the focus on the business of technology that recruiter Harvey Nash suggests in its annual Digital Leadership Report that the proportion of organisations that are essentially 'tech companies' will soon cross the 50% mark.

If they haven't started already, many of these major transformations will kick off in 2022 as organisations continue to re-imagine the way they do business by creating new products and services – an area that has become a top boardroom priority.

All this attention means talented tech chief are in high demand. While researcher GlobalData says all CXO job listings rose by just over a third (35%) in 2021 compared to 2020, it pays particular attention to the demand for tech chief roles, noting how high-quality IT leaders have gained prominence in the wake of increased digitisation efforts during the past 12 months.

As well the tech sector, companies in banking and payments, aerospace and defence, insurance, and retail sectors all witnessed significant listings for CTOs and CIOs.

Of course, another less favourable reading of this rise in job listings is that IT leaders – whether because they're moving on or being moved out – are being replaced. Estimates suggest that job tenures for CIOs are often two years or below.

SEE: What is a CIO? Everything you need to know about the Chief Information Officer explained

However, if tech chiefs are in a competitive marketplace, there's no shortage of self-confidence. Research from Colt Technology Services suggests most CIOs rate themselves as being able to deliver the rapid digital transformation that their business requires.

The firm's 2022 CIO Agility Index reports that most CIOs believe they're more agile than their competitors in five key areas – speed of implementing technology, digital transformation progress, customer centricity, ecosystem adaptiveness, and driving tech for good projects.

CIOs around the world gave themselves an average agility index rating of 61 out of 100. A score of 50 would mean that CIOs view themselves as level with the competition, with a score less than 50 for those behind the competition.

But it's not all good news: while the Colt report found optimism amongst CIOs, those interviewed also highlighted a number of 'ambition gaps' – the difference between where they are today and where they would like to be in two years. 

Even with the potential for increased financial backing, it seems as if some IT leaders feel uncomfortable about the new pressures that are likely to come their way as the business aims for long-term digital transformation.

Worse still, if they don't deliver benefits quickly, someone else will. While one threat to their position could come from the competitive CIO labour market, there's potentially an ever bigger cloud-supported danger brewing inside their own enterprise.

Cloud will be responsible for almost all spending growth within enterprise software during 2022, reports Gartner, as organisations focus on upgrading their application stack to support continued flexibility and agility.

This shift to the cloud isn't just being led by CIOs. On-demand IT also makes business-managed technology much easier, placing power in the hands of disparate areas of the organisation, reports Harvey Nash.

While the CIO remains the key broker for delivering IT solutions within the business, the recruiter says easy access to cloud-based services means the procurement and management of technology has now taken on a much more diffused picture, with a range of technology decision makers and 'brokers' sharing the limelight in 2022.

SEE: CIO priorities: 10 challenges to tackle in 2022

So, while most CIOs have impressed the board with their digital transformation achievements thus far, there's still a lot more work to do. IT leaders who want to succeed through 2022 and beyond must demonstrate their ability to embrace agility.

As Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council, recognises, there's no room for complacency – and CIOs must keep their eyes fixed firmly on the bigger prize: delivering the change that the business requires.

"I think the best IT leaders are those who understand how the business functions and can solve its problems. I think the CIO is becoming a different role – and the delivery of business change is key."

For Dal Virdi, IT director at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, CIOs who want to deliver long-term business benefits from technology must take a balanced view. "Take the time to reflect and consider the bigger picture," he says. 

"Quite often as CIOs, we get rushed into decisions that are needed quite quickly for lots of right reasons, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. And I think success is about understanding the landscape, having a vision on where the organisation wants to get to, and having a view on what some of those transitional steps might need to be."

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