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CIO: Organization Leader or IT Manager?

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For the modern CIO, organization and strategy have become two paramount concerns in recent years. 

As digital transformation continues to alter the business world, CIOs must learn to adapt to the needs of the modern enterprise. No longer can CIOs afford to simply manage IT systems and services – instead, they must be willing to take on strategic responsibilities, a leadership role in the business, and more.


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Naturally, most CIOs are still responsible for managing and delivering IT services. 

However, the balance is shifting in favor of digital leadership, business strategy, innovation, and other high-level executive activities.

Below, we’ll examine how the CIO’s role is shifting towards leadership, how other IT leaders are affected, and what this could mean for the future of the CIO.

CIO: Organization Leader or IT Services Manager?

There are numerous studies, surveys, and reports that have documented the shifting role of today’s CIO. 

For instance, according to Tata Consultancy’s 2020 CIO Study Report:

  • The most successful firms in the survey allow CIOs to spend more time on digital innovation (63%) than the less successful firms (43%)
  • On the other hand, CIOs at the least successful firms in the survey spent more time on legacy IT maintenance (57%) than their more successful counterparts (37%)
  • 75% of CIOs participate in digital transformation ideation and strategy
  • 54% lead project management
  • 61% take a leadership role in governance
  • Leading firms are more than twice as likely to have digital business developed by the IT department (63% vs. 28%)

These findings are echoed by many other research firms, such as IDG and Gartner.

In fact, Gartner has argued many times that the CIOs will become increasingly responsible for business outcomes in the years ahead. They have also demonstrated that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends.

In their 2021 CIO Agenda, for instance, they found that, as a result of the pandemic:

  • 70% of CIOs are assuming leadership of high-impact initiatives
  • 80% are educating CEOs and other senior leaders on the value of IT
  • 69% of boards are accelerating their digital business initiatives in response to COVID-19
  • 76% of CIOs report an increased demand for new digital products or services during the pandemic, and 83% expect to see acceleration of this demand in 2021

The two surveys mentioned here only scratch the surface of the available research on this topic.

Many other sources, as mentioned, also concur with these findings.

But what does this mean for the CIO?

Let’s explore some of the implications behind these trends.

The Evolving Role of the CIO: Implications for the Future

Current trends will likely accelerate in the years ahead, resulting further shifts to the CIO’s mandate.

Here are a few roles and responsibilities that CIOs can expect to adopt in the coming months and years – if they have not already.

Business Strategist

During the digital revolution, business strategy has become increasingly intertwined with digital strategy.

In fact, one could argue that, for certain industries in today’s economy, business strategy depends on digital leadership and strategy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, the most successful companies were those that had strong digital capabilities.

The future economy will only become more digital, which means that digital leaders, such as CIOs, will become more important than ever.

Culture Change Leader

Gartner has also suggested that CIOs will lead culture change efforts.

Since culture drives change forward, including digital transformation, Gartner says that CIOs will help CHROs to align technology, processes, work behavior, and culture.

Not only can culture change help accelerate digital transformation, “legacy” cultures can actually impeded digital shifts.

Gartner said, for instance, that 50% of digital transformation initiatives are “clear failures and CIOs report that the main barrier is culture.”

As a consequence, CIOs will need to understand this and learn more about the relationship between organizational culture and digital transformation.

IT Innovator and Digital Transformation Leader

As we saw above, CIOs are directly involved in digital transformation efforts.

Among other things, they assist with:

  • Ideation
  • Strategy
  • Planning
  • Execution

This means CIOs must not only have strong technical capabilities, they must also be able to think creatively, design innovative projects that offer a competitive advantage, and act as a business leader, rather than just an IT services manager.

Team Leader and Project Manager

CIOs have always been responsible for leading IT teams. 

However, the context and the skills required to lead digital transformation initiatives differ significantly from the skills needed to lead an IT department. 

Project management skills and leadership skills will become paramount, in addition to management skills.

This implies, on the one hand, that CIOs must learn the logistical aspects of project management, such as project strategy, design, and planning.

It also means that CIOs will have to acquire the skills essential for any leader, such as communication skills and soft skills. Without those, after all, it will be difficult for CIOs to earn the trust and support of their teams.

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