The evolving role of the CIO: A look at what’s in store for 2021

By Samuel Greengard

Posted on 12-17-2020

Business conditions were harsh enough in calmer times. However, with digital technologies converging and the ripples from the pandemic still emerging, the role of the chief information officer (CIO) is under a microscope like never before. As organizations attempt to navigate today’s tricky and fast-changing business environment and future-proof their businesses, the fundamental framework for business and technology have changed.

IT has become a strategic role

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“CIOs have to move from being in a functional or transactional role to more of a strategic business leader,” states Alicia Johnson, consulting principal for technology transformation at EY. As COVID has shifted business and technology requirements off premises, “it has disrupted familiar models and reshaped how we do business. Organizations that were already technology-forward were able to easily pivot. By contrast, those who did not pivot to the new model have since struggled.”

There’s no denying that the organizations that were digitally mature prior to COVID-19 had an easier time being resilient during the pandemic. And since there’s clearly no going back to the pre-pandemic world, “The change is radical and ongoing,” says David Castellani, senior vice president and business information officer at New York Life. Cynthia Stoddard, CIO and senior vice president at Adobe, recently spoke about how the role of IT is changing during a podcast: “Today, everything we do has some sort of technology. Digitization is part of the soul of every company.”

To be sure, 2021 promises to be unlike any year in history. As organizations—and their CIOs—attempt to adjust and adapt, there’s a need for a bolder outlook, different thinking about the relationship between business and technology, and an examination of how to improve interactions with customers, employees, business partners and corporate boards.

Pull Quote

“We’re not going back to the old world.”

Tom Puthiyamadam, consumer markets and digital products leader, PwC

Future tense

The furious rate of change taking place has generated waves of chaos within industries—but also new opportunities. As employees work from home, retail stores, as an example, take on new and different functions. Technology is the foundation for better connecting people and processes when customers alter the way they shop, spend and obtain goods. These changes in consumer behavior will mean the implementation of technologies such as voice recognition, augmented reality, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, analytics and much more. “The CIO’s job is now defined by far more than infrastructure,” Puthiyamadam explains.

At Adobe, Stoddard has tapped AI and bots to trim inefficiencies and establish more efficient ways to work—and address customer needs. For example, as employees headed home to work at the start of the pandemic, she introduced a chatbot to answer IT questions and route problems more efficiently. It uses natural language processing to interpret requests, and either provides an immediate answer or directs the employee to appropriate knowledge base articles. It also taps AI and machine learning to constantly improve. By using email and chatbots rather than phone calls to IT, Adobe slashed its typical 10-hour IT response time down to 1 hour for cases that required human involvement. That represented a 90 percent improvement.

Stoddard has also unleashed bots to tackle numerous other tasks. This has led to an AI-based catalog ordering system that eliminated 76 percent of the work related to creating purchase orders for new hardware. Likewise, an automated contract creation system eliminated about 82 percent of the previous workload.

Adapting to this new world increasingly means dispensing with conventional business models and pushing disruption broader and deeper into organizations. It means unlearning tech-talk and gaining an ability to translate technical topics into actual business terms that have strategic value. A starting point for understanding today’s business climate is to recognize that different touchpoints and interaction models are needed to address radically different behavioral and consumption models. “CIOs have to learn a whole new raft of skills to meet a very different set of KPIs,” Stoddard explains. These include broader business acumen and more refined communication skills.

In fact, these business and IT metrics are very different from pre-pandemic days. It may be, as Stoddard has focused on, improving incident resolution for remote employees, or something like the availability and use of contactless payment systems. As Jason Oliver, IT director at Sussex University in England, recently stated during a CIO from IDG webcast (sponsored by Adobe): “Historically it would have been core metrics around things like server availability and system uptime. There’s still a place for that but, actually, the focus now is more on the performance of the IT team and their metrics. [The old approach] does nothing to inform anyone about the performance of the wider business and the wider institution.”

More than metrics

Yet it isn’t only metrics that matter. CIOs are increasingly part of the digital transformation agenda that looks to advance an organization’s mission. As a result, CIOs must understand how to connect with other leaders within the organization as well as with members of the boardroom and speak in a language they understand. For instance, there’s a need to forge a tighter relationship with the CMO to address different messaging and customer connection points in the time of COVID. This may span things as diverse as curbside pickup and using technologies such as augmented reality and chatbots to create entirely different shopping experiences.

In order to succeed at this task, CIOs must adopt a broader perspective and possess business acumen that wasn’t expected in the past, according to Stoddard. Today, “CIO’s must understand their role in advancing a business strategy and overall digitization,” she explains. “They must be front-and-center and really understand how to partner with business groups and the board.” What’s more, all of this can’t take place at quarterly strategy meetings, it has to happen dynamically and in real time.

New York Life’s Castellani believes that it’s essential to move beyond the title of chief information officer. Because the CIO’s role extends far beyond IT, the insurance giant has rebranded Castellani’s role to business information officer. In his capacity at New York Life, he constantly ponders ways to use technology to drive innovation and disruption. This translates into new products, redefining existing products and rethinking fundamental assumptions. “You have to be part of a rigorous and often difficult debate about what direction the company and products should go. You have to understand how to build a more flexible IT infrastructure that can adapt to rapid change.”

Beyond computing

A common trap, Castellani says, is getting caught in the moment and thinking too linearly.

Pull Quote

“Technology is no longer a reaction to a problem or what someone needs, it’s a driver for reinventing a business and perhaps an industry.”

David Castellani, senior vice president and business information officer, New York Life

Right now, this means supporting changes that take place during a pandemic. At New York Life, for example, it translates into mobile vans with technicians who visit clients and handle lab tests. “But it’s also important to survey the landscape post-COVID,” he says. This includes looking for ways for New York Life to incorporate data from wearables and use the cloud and data in more innovative ways to drive new pricing and usage models.

EY’s Johnson concurs that while COVID-19 has forced businesses to work in entirely new ways—and altered everything from workflows to security models—it’s important to peer over the horizon. At some point, hopefully in 2021, the pandemic will begin to fade. Yet, a return to the old way of doing things should be out of the question. “Business won’t go back to the same as before,” she says. Businesses that have built the right technology foundation and made the right investments in people and processes will be better prepared to deal with whatever ripples or tsunamis that appear in the marketplace.

Johnson believes it’s important for organizations and CIOs to focus on three primary things. First, on the technology the organization requires to drive the business forward—with a particular focus on the requirements of “silos, products and people.” This demands strong communication and a willingness to think beyond monolithic enterprise approaches. A business cannot run smoothly without this underlying framework, she says.

Second, it’s critical for CIOs to find ways to improve the way technology is deployed and automated across the enterprise and beyond. For example, “Many companies have people working remotely. If an employee has a problem with his or her laptop there’s usually no on-site support. So, companies need to change the way IT functions and reimagine the end-to-end user relationship,” Johnson says.

Likewise, as customers approach buying and consumption decisions differently—in many cases wishing to avoid going to a store—everything from ordering to delivery may change. An organization may need to redesign and remap their app for curbside pickup or to display on their site more inventory and detailed shipping information. A CIO must link these business needs with the right technology.

Finally, CIOs must prioritize culture in the business strategy. Businesses often talk about digital transformation in the context of people, process and technology. Says Johnson: “The people portion of this is about continuing to motivate your talent and provide opportunities for personal growth. It’s about CIOs engaging with their team and helping them understand the culture even when it’s remote.”

Eye on the customer

Yet, all roads must eventually lead back to customers, Puthiyamadam says. “All things a CIO does should have some tie-in to creating value for customers.” Given the extraordinarily difficult nature of today’s business environment, and how rapidly it can change, he believes it’s wise for senior executives, including the CIO, to be present ⁠— to visit stores (once it’s safe), sit in on online sessions with customers and gain firsthand knowledge of what interactions actually look like. “You can do a great job on everything—hit all your metrics—but if the customer isn’t satisfied, you’re not going to have a successful business,” he says.

This means finding ways to reduce friction through streamlined apps, quick and easy payments, visibility into inventory and orders, flexible deliveries, and easy ways to connect to a company, Puthiyamadam says. Simply tossing technology at the problem doesn’t address fundamental needs. For instance, a sales or support chatbot can serve as an effective tool or a frustrating hinderance, depending on how it is set up and how it connects people and resources. Predictive analytics can help delight or frustrate customers, depending on whether a marketing message is perceived as a value or simply more noise.

Now is the time to make significant investments in technology along with process improvements, Puthiyamadam concludes. There’s no turning back. Companies and CIOs that get things right have an opportunity to pluck opportunity out of all the chaos and transcend the competition. “The goal isn’t to restore the business to a pre-pandemic form,” he says. “It’s to build a framework that’s better adapted to a post-pandemic world in which almost everything is digital.”

IT has become a strategic role

Download our 2020 Technology Trends report, produced in partnership with Econsultancy, to learn how strategy and technology are coming together to help set businesses apart with superior customer experiences.

Get the report

Topics: Information Technology, Outlook 2021, Customer Stories, Digital Transformation, Leadership, Trends & Research, CMO by Adobe, COVID-19, New Year New You, Partner Story, Experience Cloud