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21st-century CIO job description puts CIOs in vortex of emerging tech

The ban against pursuing tech for tech's sake -- it's been lifted. CIOs need to dive into emerging tech to extract its business potential. Welcome to the new CIO job description.

CIOs must increase their pace of innovation, step up their exploration of new technologies and play a greater role in shaping business strategy at their organizations, according to researchers and consultants. Other tenets of the new CIO job description: IT leaders of the future will fill the IT talent gap with hired guns, including robots; work side by side with other CIO personas; and play IT elder to business technology buyers.

Corporate IT departments won't disappear but rather increase in value -- even as business units increasingly hire Digital Natives and other workers with solid technology skills to help deploy their own tech initiatives.

As that trend accelerates, experts said, the IT department will remain the key player within the enterprise as it will be tasked with identifying new market opportunities created by technology -- not just enabling ideas brought forth by their business colleagues.

Craig Le ClairCraig Le Clair

"The pressure for innovation is fundamentally changing how a traditional IT department is organized. It's a big shift from identifying a problem that then needs a solution to a place where technology will open up potentials," said Forrester Research Vice President and Principal Analyst Craig Le Clair.

CIO job description: Leading with technology

Le Clair acknowledged that this is a dramatic change from what CIOs have heard for years -- that they can't embrace technology for technology's sake. The new CIO job description doesn't advocate that exactly, "because that sounds like you're doing it for a meaningless pursuit," Le Clair said. But CIOs must explore technologies for their potentials and develop strategies around how to develop those potentials into market initiatives.

"Now, because technology can be so transformational, you have to dive into the technology to understand what the business potential is; you have to have an understanding of what the technology can do," he said.

Now, because technology can be so transformational, you have to dive into the technology to understand what the business potential is; you have to have an understanding of what the technology can do.
Craig Le ClairForrester Research

CIO roles and responsibilities and those of the IT department will become more strategic. The shift to a strategic rather than supporting role for IT isn't a new notion. Indeed, it has been a well-recognized trend for years and has been happening ever since the technology team's main job moved beyond keeping the mainframe and computers up and running.

What's new is the pace at which this evolution is now happening and the criticality of being able to adapt the IT department and technology leadership to a higher level of strategic involvement.

"You have to lead more with the technology than ever before," Le Clair said.

Forrester outlined this vision in its recent report, "The Future of IT," stating: "A company's fate and fortune will be determined by its ability to exploit technology to its highest potential."

Tech-driven competitive differentiators

Other research has reached similar conclusions. For example, in its 2018 report "Using Strategic IT for Competitive Advantage," CompTIA said: "The critical difference between today's IT and the IT of 10 or 20 years ago is the degree to which technology is being used to drive the strategic goals of a business."

Seth RobinsonSeth Robinson

As a result, CIOs and the IT department as a whole are seeing an elevation in their importance to formulating strategy and competitive differentiators, said Seth Robinson, CompTIA's senior director of technology analysis.

"Business objectives used to be driven by business with IT supporting them. And IT still does that, but IT has more of a direct connection to those objectives now," Robinson said. The increasingly symbiotic relationship between business goals and IT has expanded the traditional CIO job description. "The CIO role has always had a bit of strategy in it, but now, it has more strategy in it."

Relinquish ownership, step up control frameworks

Still, as companies move into the future, experts said CIOs need to impress upon their departments that IT alone won't own technology.

Le Clair said Forrester expects business units will continue to seek out and implement their own technology solutions, such as robotic process automation, to drive efficiencies in their own domains and to best match the technology to the business requirements.

This is part of what's driving the shift in IT, he explained.

"This has to be driven by the business, but when you accept that, then the major function of IT becomes control frameworks. And those become more important the more you federate technology," he said.

That's a trend CompTIA has also highlighted.

"IT is bleeding in the business units to some degree, but in a lot of cases, IT is coming alongside the business unit and working with them as partners. That's what we see in businesses that are more on the cutting edge. They're forming environments where business and IT work in collaboration," Robinson said.

Robinson also emphasized that IT departments won't go away but will change their roles and responsibilities.

"Business units might take more of the tactical pieces and bring in pieces they want, but they can't integrate it, secure it, look out on the horizon at tech [that] could be brought into the business. So, we still very much believe there is a place for IT in a business to drive a technical strategy," he added.

Multiple CIO personas

Likewise, Forrester foresees a shift in IT's role more toward orchestration. The shift will be necessary "to make sure that the innovations that occur will go into production without disrupting the organization and the business," Le Clair said.

IT's intercalation into the business will also drive the need for multiple CIO personas -- and not just at the largest companies, but even at those with as few as 1,000 employees, Le Clair said. Indeed, the Forrester report underscored this trend; it noted that CIOs are increasingly expected to fund innovation, manage the IT architecture and coordinate all the tech-related tactical and strategic needs within the organization and that "no one person will be able to do all of that."

Shrinking the skills gap -- dynamic teams

These multiple CIOs will lead an IT organization that is more fluid in how it sources talent, Le Clair said. IT certainly will continue to have internal teams, but workers will move between initiatives and between departments more frequently. There will be more external IT team members as well, and CIOs will need to learn to manage teams that are more dynamic.

"The whole notion of having this adaptable organization that is amoebalike and using a talent economy to leverage the skills when needed is a major change for CIOs," Le Clair said.

The Forrester report predicted that these organizational changes will help shrink the skills gap that has perennially plagued CIOs. It noted: "IT, as a whole, will be dynamic to the task, pulling capacity and competency from a broader range of sources, including traditional employees, robots or expertise as a service from members of the growing gig economy."

Four-stage maturity curve

Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc. has long talked about a shift in IT leadership as part of a four-stage maturity curve, with IT needing to move from supplier -- the lowest level -- to solution partner to strategic partner and finally to innovative anticipator, where IT can "deliver game-changing value."

Dan RobertsDan Roberts

"With every company becoming a technology company, the notion of 'earning a seat at the table' is old news. The CIO of the future will be setting the table," said Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates. "They will need to perform [as] 'innovative anticipators.'"

Roberts said many CIOs are already working in this way in organizations spanning industry verticals. They are "already looking around the corner" and anticipating where their industries are going.

"They are driving new innovation and industry disruption by orchestrating a new customer experience that results in greater mind share and market share," Roberts said. "They are also finding new and creative ways to leverage data to sell more products and services that drive new high-margin revenue."

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