Big opportunities for strategic CIO leadership today

CIOs and technology leaders have unprecedented opportunities to lead their enterprises in meeting today's new demands. Here are some of those opportunities -- and some challenges.

For today's IT leaders, an affinity for being in the spotlight may be the new job requirement.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many organizations' digital efforts as they scrambled to handle disruptions and meet changing customer needs. That put CIOs and other IT leaders center stage and highlighted their importance -- a reality that will continue as cloud adoption and the need for digital upskilling continues.

CIOs have an opportunity to lead the organization's business technology strategy in a new way, said Jenny Koehler, U.S. cloud and digital leader at PwC. But that opportunity comes with challenges.

Here, Koehler explains why cloud adoption has opened up strategic CIO leadership opportunities, shares tips for stepping into those opportunities and points out the importance of change management.

All in on the cloud

What are some of the strategic leadership opportunities that have opened up for today's CIOs?

Jenny Koehler: We've heard a couple of significant themes in our surveys.

The business community and senior executives, not just the CIO, is all in on the cloud for innovation, for data and analytics to make better decisions, and to get to customers in a more intimate way.

Jenny Koehler, US cloud and digital leader at PwCJenny Koehler

We also heard [in a recent PwC 'US Cloud Business' survey] that 50% of our respondents don't yet see value from their cloud investments. So, there's room to grow the value felt from those investments.

Our 'Next in Work' survey highlighted the pressures that [the COVID-19] pandemic has forced on the general community of workers, the uncertainty over the future and then how technology is critical to enable whatever that future will look like.

When I reflect on those themes, what's clear is that CIOs have an opportunity to have an outsized voice in a company's future, to deliver a business outcome and promise, and to touch every worker in a different way.

How CIOs can get strategic

How can IT leaders step into strategic CIO leadership?

Koehler: The rate of technological change and the promise of the cloud is so high that every CIO is in a unique position to make that come alive in a real way for their organization. How they choose to do that, whether they choose to do that -- and also whether the culture welcomes it -- are all things each CIO feels their way through and wrestles with.

You've got the business needing to connect with their customers in a much more experiential, understanding and intimate way. You've got operational constraints and pressure to deliver more shareholder value. So, you have to look at your core operations and what is differentiating the company. The things that are not adding as much value or differentiating you need to do with cost-effectiveness.

I don't know how you do those things without digital and new technologies. You cannot talk business strategy -- like a CEO, board-level conversation -- without understanding the digital ingredients to make it happen.

So, as a CIO, to be able to step into that conversation with authority and be that guiding voice, I think that's the moment we're in right now.

Going for the cloud

From "US Cloud Business Survey": Business leaders are unifying in support of cloud initiatives, with 74% of business leaders supporting cloud efforts and 56% seeing it as a means of strategic growth. On the other hand, 53% have not yet realized the return on the cloud investments.

New need for change management and digital upskilling

What about the need for digital upskilling?

Koehler: CIOs are worried about digitally upskilling because they realize they're going to put this newer technology in the hands of the business.

What's interesting is that about half of the CIOs are saying they're prioritizing things such as data analytics, and that puts you immediately in the trenches with the business. [Those CIOs will need to ask:] Do people have the analytic 'muscles' to think about data creatively -- not just compile it? You can build an awesome tool, deliver data in more real time, but if people [throughout the company] don't pick it up and use it, then you're going to hear things like, 'I don't know what value I got from that tool.'

CIOs and next in work

From "CIO/CTO and Technology Leaders" Next in Work pulse survey: Data analytics to drive better decision-making (49%) tops the list of priority areas, followed by security by design (37%) and a cloud-centric operating model (36%).

What are some concrete next steps that a strategic CIO can take in leading digital and upskilling efforts?

Koehler: The first step is education-related. The CIO can set expectations and educate to create a baseline technology fluency. For example, we'll do fluency courses for board members or the C-suite on subjects such as 'What is cloud?' What does that even mean and what are the building blocks? If I'm a CIO stepping into technology conversations, that's a moment to educate and raise everybody's level of [digital] fluency and understanding.

A critical first step in a change management program is widespread representation -- that governance and sponsorship cuts across different pillars of an organization.

The human-level adoption and willingness to accept new technology goes beyond just fingers on a keyboard. CIOs need to hit digital upskilling straight on. If modernization takes place where the nature of work changes, work may be -- for example -- less clerical or data gathering, and more thought or analytic intensive. And that's a different muscle.

CIOs do have a responsibility to make sure everything is secure. That they're worried about cybersecurity comes up again and again. But the core human aspects [of successful business technology change] are critical. You have to have a change management program that reflects those realities.

Next Steps

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