The unexpected return of the CIO

CIOs looked like they were going out of fashion a few years back, but now they're bouncing back.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Once thought to be headed for extinction, the role of the CIO is experiencing a comeback.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Things looked bleak for CIOs at the end of the noughties: the consumerisation of IT was rampant and employees were using their own devices to buy applications from the cloud, often without the say-so of the tech chief. Was there any need for a CIO anymore?

Now, just a few years later on, everything looks very different.

Jonathan Mitchell, non-executive chairman at recruiter Harvey Nash, is one expert who sees a rosy future for IT leaders. "CIOs today are generally happier than ever before, and certainly more so than five years ago," says Mitchell, who formerly held senior IT roles at BP and GlaxoSmithKline, and was CIO at Rolls Royce for almost a decade.

"There's a lot less rock-throwing taking place than in the past. The rest of the business wants to know about technology and IT leaders have the opportunity to really contribute and to fulfil a rewarding role."

IT leaders have certainly encountered a rapid change in fortunes during the past few years -- and they have even managed to see off other C-suite upstarts, most notably the chief digital officer (CDO). IDC said 60 percent of CIOs would be replaced by CDOs by 2020, yet research from Harvey Nash and KPMG suggests just one in five organisations employ a CDO today.

Tonino Ciuffini, head of information assets at Warwickshire County Council, is a long-time CIO who has seen a number of trends in IT leadership come and go. He recognises that existential crises for CIOs are nothing new, and that each technology trend brings new questions about the relevance of the role.

However, Ciuffini enjoys the challenge of remaining relevant -- in fact, he believes the pace of transformation makes the role interesting. "The nice thing about IT is that the industry is always reinventing itself," he says. "The job has changed to a huge extent in the last two years, never mind the past three decades."

CIOs, then, are used to debates about the nature of their role, although it's unlikely sales directors or marketing chiefs worry about the relevance of their positions. And it would be anathema for a business to question the significance of its CEO or CFO.

The good news for CIOs is that the level of debate about the need for the CIO role has reduced. In fact, some experts believe the discussion has died out altogether and that, instead, some people are beginning to question just how high up the executive ladder CIOs can climb.

Why is experienced IT leadership so crucial in the digital age?

While the decentralisation of IT procurement a few years back led some experts to question the long-term relevance of the IT director, others woke up to the fact that digital transformation requires expert leadership.

The management of technology -- just like the management of finance -- is a specialist role. Just as the CFO's position is key to any business, so CIOs can draw on their vast experience of strategy, leadership, and governance to help the rest of the business make the most of technology.

Smart CIOs are already helping their businesses use digital systems and services as part of a wider business strategy. Technology in these instances is seen as central to the success of the company. Lisa Heneghan, global head of KPMG's CIO advisory practice, says the increased prevalence of CIOs on the executive board is proof that IT strategy is now simply part of business strategy.

Just over a third (34 percent) of CIOs now report to the CEO, according to KPMG and Harvey Nash. More than half (57 percent) of IT leaders sit on executive boards, a figure that has doubled during the past decade. Two thirds of CIOs (67 percent), meanwhile, expect their strategic influence to grow this year.

"CIOs must be part of the wider discussion," says Heneghan, referring to the new role of the successful IT chief. "If they're not around the board table talking, then they're still just responsible for managing a service. Our research suggests CEOs increasingly want to work with the CIO as a trusted partner."

Heneghan says increased awareness of the importance of technology across all areas of business means there are new opportunities for CIOs. "IT leaders have more confidence," she says. "To exploit technology, organisations really need people that understand systems and services."

Could more CIOs end up being appointed CEOs?

Jonathan Mitchell at Harvey Nash is another expert who believes the rise of the CIO presents new opportunities. In fact, he says there is even evidence that IT leaders are beginning to develop lofty ambitions.

Harvey Nash and KPMG research suggests fewer CIOs than ever before foresee their entire career in the IT function. More than half (55 percent) of CIOs believe their career will be outside technology within five years.

"IT leaders have learnt about business and they want to do something different with their careers," says Mitchell. "Some move around IT leadership and digital transformation positions. Some move into related business development areas, such as operations or risk management. Some even become CEOs."

Evidence of that transition already exists. While most examples of CIOs-turned-CEOs come from the IT sector, there are an increasing number of outliers: examples include Jamie Miller, now CEO for GE Transportation, and Andrew Rashbass, who became CEO of the Economist Group and is now executive chairman at Euromoney.

Chris White, CIO at legal firm Clyde & Co, says there is absolutely no doubt that the boundaries between the various executive disciplines are eroding. "A lot of the work that I do might have been picked up by a business development or marketing director in the past," he says, before suggesting a good CEO is ultimately someone with very strong leadership skills.

"They have great strategic direction and can either transform or grow the business. CEOs normally hold very strong financial skills as well. Those aptitudes don't necessarily grow from the same point that they might have done ten years ago. In the end, the people with the right skills should become CEOs," says White.

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