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The evolution of the CIO: From systems watchdog to data visionary

What does a chief information officer actually do?

This isn’t meant to be a flippant or trick question, but with the variety of answers you’d likely get (depending on who you ask), you might be forgiven for thinking it is. That’s because the IT function has undergone tremendous change in recent years—an ongoing process that has of course impacted the role of the CIO.

Traditionally, IT’s role has been perceived as “keeping the lights on,” focusing on technology systems upkeep and maintenance, with limited input into the larger business plan or data strategy outside technological requirements. The business unit generally revolved around functionality, not innovation.

These “standard” IT operations fall under what Gartner calls “Mode 1” IT in its bimodal framework. Today, as technology has become the backbone of business success, Mode 1 is quickly being eclipsed by the demand for driving innovation (Mode 2). Don’t get me wrong: Implementing the proper IT infrastructure strategy is still fundamental to keeping a company competitive in 2018. But the CIO of today, as the head of IT, must also be a change agent and a driver of business performance and digital strategy within the company as a whole.

The modern CIO embodies bimodal IT, combining the standard practices of Mode 1 with Mode 2’s innovative, visionary purview.

A True Strategic Partner

According to recent research from Forbes, CIOs have seen the silo around their role break down within the last five years, and they now expend significantly more time and energy contributing to corporate strategy.

Strategic thinking has emerged as equally crucial—if not more so—than pure technological expertise, and the CIO’s role as a communicator, leader and partner has become critical to all business solutions in the digital era, especially those that are consumer-facing.

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Portrait of a young woman scientist in supercomputer center

Since data, technology and IT are embedded across every aspect of a business, the CIO always has a touch point to each of the company’s divisions and a privileged perspective on the entire company’s digital strategy. This position means that they can be an effective coordinator and liaison between all departments, not only engineering the flow of information but also dictating the direction of their company’s digital efforts.

Today’s CIO can bring a unique perspective to the table by marrying their technological know-how with a specific dexterity in applying specific technology to business challenges and data opportunities. As a C-suite partner, the CIO is in a prime position to lead digital transformation efforts and identify opportunities to integrate emerging technologies into the business, whether AI, IoT, machine learning or intelligent automation. This is a particularly useful skill in the boardroom, where discussions have shifted to focus on remaining technologically competitive and prioritizing innovation.

Navigator of an Increasingly Complex Tech-Focused Landscape

As the role of the CIO continues to gain complexity, the importance of finding a balance between Mode 1 and Mode 2 IT will only grow. In the past, Mode 1 has reigned supreme, but in today’s increasingly complex, multicloud world, tech leaders need to figure out how to factor in the ideals of a Mode 2 IT.

Maintaining and securing infrastructure will still be crucial, but this is something that CIOs can outsource to an IT services partner. The CIO can still have a hand in and oversight into this activity, but the bulk of the responsibility and the day-to-day tasks can be delegated, allowing their teams more time to focus on innovation.

Placing an emphasis on innovation and revenue growth within the CIO’s job description is holistically beneficial for the company. IDC FutureScapes analysts predict that “by 2021, sixty-five percent of CIOs will expand agile/DevOps practices into the wider business to achieve the velocity necessary for innovation, execution, and change.”

The consistent and rapid change that the digital age has brought to corporate structure is best reflected in the shift in the CIO role. The job requires that CIOs possess the nimbleness and flexibility to adapt their skills to meet the developing demands of the environment. Truly a catalyst, the CIO can walk the fine lines technology has drawn between departments and implement digital solutions for anticipated challenges before they affect the company as a whole.

New and more complex technology will continue to be integrated into every business function, and operations will constantly need to be reassessed and optimized. Without input from the CIO, organizations will struggle to stay ahead of the curve.

The modern CIO is a champion of change and provides a critical perspective on emerging technologies that companies would be remiss to overlook as the industry moves forward.

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