The CIO Rebooted: Meet the agents of change
The role of the chief information officer has changed dramatically since the pandemic, from IT back-office manager to a board level business leader capable of managing change that often encompasses additional non-tech responsibilities.
During an opening panel session at the three-day online tech conference, CIO Summit, three CIOs discussed how their role within the wider business has evolved since the Covid-19 pandemic; why they expect to retain this influence, and how they plan to tackle the challenges raised by the cost-of-living crisis.
According to Phil Jordan – Sainsbury’s outgoing CIO, set to retire next year – the role has changed “dramatically” in the 35-year period in which he has been working.
The crunch time was the pandemic, he added, when online retail became front and centre of many retailer’s strategies. During this time the CIO transformed from “being a necessarily evil a set of capabilities to help you record a business to being the business”.
Jordan, a former global CIO of Telefónica, added: “Any business that didn’t have capability to reach customers in a digital way and didn’t understand its customers through data either didn’t make it through the pandemic or won’t make it for much longer.”
CIO of mobile operator Three Belinda Finch agreed, adding that while IT used to be classed as a cost centre, the CIO is now seen as the enabler of business strategy. For that reason, she added, they need to be comfortable with both the business and the tech worlds.
“IT leadership has evolved,” she added “it’s less about cost and more about being a leader and spearheading innovation and managing cross functional teams and leading cultural change.”
Jo Graham, CIO of online fashion retailer Boohoo, added that CIOs now wear many hats and, depending on the size of the organisation, are often the chief ‘digital’ officer and the chief ‘product’ officer as well.
“When you add the word ‘data’ in there, you have the biggest job title ever!” she joked.
In terms of the influence a CIO wields and reporting lines, the panel agreed that it’s notable that the board-level CIO is not unusual now – rather than reporting into the CFO or COO.
“You are seeing more and more technology leaders on the board now, rather than reporting into a member of the board,” said Graham.
Jordan added: “I’m sure the three of us wouldn’t even look at a job that wasn’t on the board of a company, would we?”
They all agreed.
The Sainsbury’s exec added: “Technology has become so intrinsic to the business now that I struggle to imagine how you can do the role properly unless you are positioned as a business leader who happens to have a technology brief.”
“If you want to drive change and enable it you are in the wrong business if it’s not in the board,” he added.
Over the last eighteen months the panel also noted a trend which has seen CIOs become more embedded in activities and roles outside of the traditional confines of IT – leading on projects involving real estate, sustainability, diversity and inclusion.
Graham, for instance, was responsible for Boohoo’s transformation programme Agenda for Change (A4C) to put an end of modern-day slavery allegations and supply chain failings.
In March, A4C was declared a success by external auditors KPMG and Sir Brian Leveson. Graham explained why it made sense for the tech head to take the lead: “The project needed someone who had done transformation, who had done programming governance and who could work with and satisfy those people and that was genuine.
“And one of the big work streams in that programme was IT – we built the capability to create an ecosystem where we enabled our buyers and our merchandisers to do their jobs without worrying so much about compliance because we had systems in place that offered that catch-all.
“We created a supplier hub, order apps, a whole raft of things that gave them confidence that when they were ordering things from suppliers that those suppliers had been through the right checks.”
“So, while it wasn’t all tech, we were given the opportunity to support the business through tech in this way. So, I felt that made it more pertinent that I was leading it.”
Finch meanwhile, drove the launch of Three’s B2B business earlier this year. She explained:
“We’ve pushed the IT and the Business teams together. We’ve created a business transformation team comprising of multi-disciplinary teams that are brought in from all areas of the business. These teams run the direction of the project and make sure that all departments -from finance to customer experience – is aligned in objectives and goals.”
“It’s working really well – there are arguments, sure, but nothing compared to what there used to be after you’ve spent millions of pounds creating something that doesn’t work.”
Jordan said that these two examples demonstrated how CIOs often step into the void where there’s no head of business process or no head of product.
“There are always those voids in big enterprise businesses, and I think the CIO is the best person to fill them. I’d encourage everyone to do that.”
Because the role of the CIO is evolving and expanding, so in turn are the skills that are required from members of the wider team. According to Graham, managing trusted partners – if you are using outsourced developers and coders – has also become extremely important.
“That is a skill in itself – not just in terms of articulating what you want but in terms of building relationships remotely and in different time zones but also how you have ongoing relationship with them, so they feel they are still part of the team.
“So, businesses are looking for people who have supplier type contractual experiences who can show that they can deliver well through others. It’s not enough to just deliver on your own merit you have to show you have the ability to do this flex which means you can deliver way more than what you could on your own,” she added.
In the context of the Cost-of-Living crisis and War in Ukraine, the big challenge many companies now face is how to create efficiencies – how does the CIO’s role fit into this?
“We can’t leave any money on the table when it comes to third party suppliers – we need to make sure that processes are as lean as they can be and look to see if anything more can be automated,” said Graham.
Finch added: “The challenge really is cost – doing the same for less and working with the commercial guys to really look at what we want to do in terms of products and services. We want to be that trusted adviser – advising on the simplest, quickest or easiest way to launch product, build platforms and reduce waste and cost,” she said.
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