Return to the office: Now CIOs face their next big challenge

Having helped organisations make the massive shift to remote working, everything is about to change for the CIO, again.

Coronavirus: Remote working is just the start of the digital transformation process

The past decade has seen CIOs earning a broader decision-making role within business as they have proved how central digital transformation is to making organisations more flexible and effective. 

The events of the past few months have seen a whole new set of challenges for tech chiefs: managing their part of the business response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak meant IT leaders had to focus like never before on operational concerns. 

They had to create secure remote-working strategies in a matter of days, often using any equipment they could lay their hands on – and in many cases they succeeded.

SEE: How the CIO fought their way back from the edge of extinction

What's already clear from this rapid response is that the coronavirus pandemic will have an immediate and lasting impact on both the level and make-up of technology spending and the role of IT chiefs. 

CIOs might have proven their capability when it comes to helping the business work effectively in a crisis, but now they need to prove their value in the longer term – and delivering to that focus will mean a permanent shift in IT leadership.

It's a trend that's highlighted in Deloitte's recently released 2020 Global Technology Leadership survey, which identifies the attributes of market-leading CIOs. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the consultancy firms says 'vanguard' CIOs will play a pivotal role in shaping their firm's resiliency, recovery and growth strategies.

"The COVID-19 pandemic may have paused many in-person business operations, but it has sparked an accelerated adoption of digital technologies and capabilities that has helped organisations remain agile and resilient," says Khalid Kark, research director at Deloitte.

Right now, the onus for CIOs is on making sure that the technology they've implemented helps those who continue to work remotely. CIOs will also be expected to help shape the work spaces of businesses as workers return to the socially distanced office.

SEE: After the remote working rush, here comes the CIO's next challenge

But beyond that, IT leaders will be expected to use technology to help their businesses to not only survive but to thrive in a post-COVID world. Deloitte's research shows that the majority (69%) of board members expect successful CIOs to have characters relating to "change," "vision," and "innovation" over the next three years.

Achieving those grand aims will not be straightforward. For a start, cash is constrained. A recent PwC survey found more than half of CFOs expect tech spending to come under more scrutiny. Worldwide IT spending is set to decline by 5.1% through 2020, according to researcher IDC.

There is hope amongst the CIO community that cash will be made available as enterprises start to plot their post-pandemic recoveries. IDC says CIOs must choose technologies that will protect their organisations, help them survive the 2020 recession, and prepare for renewed growth after the recession.

The researcher says the right technology choices now will create the opportunity for the CIO to move from technology leader to business strategist. Where IT spending does occur, it will involve the tactical use of digital technology – particularly the cloud – as a way to cut costs and help the business grow over the much longer term.

For David Allison, global head of IT at First Quantum Minerals, it's important that tech leaders focus first and foremost on what their business needs right now. He says hyperbole around the term digital transformation masks the fact that IT leaders still need to focus on ensuring that "the basics are right".

That's true now more than ever before, as CIOs work to create a platform for sustainable growth in challenging circumstances. 

Non-IT executives who might have doubted the reliability and performance of the cloud before COVID-19 have now seen the value of digital transformation. Going forward, businesses will be more accepting about relying on the cloud – and the best CIOs will use that acceptance to change the shape of their own roles as business change agents.

Deloitte says vanguard tech leaders only constitute about 10% of the current global CIO population, yet they set a very clear path for others to follow by focusing squarely on how technology can help the business to improve and grow. More than half of tech vanguards (52%) centre their transformation efforts around implementing new business models.

SEE: How to become a CIO: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

That's something that resonates with Neil Ward-Dutton, vice-president at tech research company IDC, who recognises that definitions of the IT leadership position continue to evolve. Like Deloitte, he suggests that there is already a pioneering group of CIOs who are likely to point the way towards the future of technology leadership in a post-COVID age.

"They go further, adding strategic value in helping the wider enterprise leadership team understand new business opportunities and risks that new technologies bring to the industry and the firm. If CIOs are going to be truly valued, they have to be relevant to transformation in the digital age," he says.

For Nick Burton, chief information and digital officer at cosmetics firm Avon International, the renewed focus on tech-led business transformation is the strengthening of a trend that was already in play. CIOs have long been aware of the need to be business-focused; current socio-economic uncertainty makes a strong grip on change even more apposite.

"I think it was going that way before, but none of the conversations I'm having with the board right now are about tin, wire and services. All I'm talking about is what's happening with e-commerce, what's happening with our sales and what's the roadmap around the digital products that we're developing as a response to the coronavirus," he says.

"My conversations with the rest of the business are about how do we sustain that tech-led transformation; how do we keep driving the type of change that we want to see across the business. That's what the conversation's about now, not IT stuff."