The golden age of the CIO is here

The golden age of the CIO is here
12 May, 2020

Since the turn of the century, various respected analysts have predicted, with a surprising degree of confidence, the death of the chief information officer (CIO) role. 

The reasons cited were multifarious. 

Every business leader will become a technology executive. The role of the CIO will be redundant. The chief digital officer (CDO) will replace the CIO. Alternatively, the CIO will become subservient to the CDO. Outsourcing and technology companies will take over the running of the IT function, provide technology as a service akin to electricity, and that’ll be that. 

Well, as we collectively gasp for air through the Covid-19 crisis, paradoxically, the golden age of the CIO is dawning. To understand this, it’s opportune to take a step back. 

The Covid-19 crisis hit around the turn of the decade. As the virus spread across continents, the global economy was already in a spot of bother. Growth rates were slowing, indicators were weakening and the conversation was centred around when, not if, a severe recession was going to hit the G7 economies, especially the US. Most countries around the world went into various stages of lockdown during March. As an example, India imposed a total lockdown on March 24. 

The fight against the disease has caused an unprecedented economic crisis characterised by both demand and supply shocks.  A virtual handbrake has been pulled on the economy, and business leaders are scrambling to survive, pivot and prepare their companies to compete for the time when the current crisis is behind us. 

Digital technologies have found their sweet spot as businesses architect to win in a post Covid-19 world. Everyone realises that this world is going to look very different from the one we exited in 2019. Everything will change, but not everything will change equally. 

Our research suggests that there are at least four areas of deep transformation competing for scarce resources -- employee related, customer centric, supply chain and risk management.

What’s clear is that here and now, CIOs are in their golden age. They are the first C-suite executives the boards and CEOs are turning to for leadership through the Covid-19 crisis, and for preparation to win in the post Covid-19 world. Budgets are like rainfall in the Sahara whilst demands are akin to the volume and frequency of rain in England. 

CIOs should grasp the nettle, step up and shine. This is your time! 

However, CIOs must arm themselves to be successful in a position of greater responsibility, and power. 

I suggest that all CIOs take at least two online courses. One which helps you understand the economy you operate in, and the industry that your employer works within. And a second one which helps you to understand finance; get comfortable with money matters and terms such as amortisation, depreciation, asset sweating, leasing and the like. Money is going to be scarce for a while, and the CEO and CFO will embrace a finance-aware CIO. It’ll also help you get more budgets, make more investments and gain credibility. In the longer run, if you aspire to business and other leadership roles, this education will stand you in good stead. 

Develop multiple scenarios, ideally in partnership with the CEO and CFO, on how the business might evolve. A different budget should be visualised for each scenario. No one really knows what happens next, and the CIOs plans must incorporate flexibility and shock absorption capability. For example, running your loan processing system on a cloud based application would ensure that it stays robust should people line up for loans, or automatically reduce your infrastructure and licensing cost should the expected rush in loan applications not materialise. Whichever scenario activates, frequent budget reviews and revisions will be needed to fly through the turbulence. 

In the short term, most CEOs have the singular purpose of survival and associated with that, cash conservation. Keep that in mind. 

Along with cash conservation, two other topics are dominating boardroom conversations today.

Business continuity in the context of larger risk management as well as security, both cyber and physical. No one is better placed than CIOs to lead the way in developing next generation business continuity plans as well as comprehensive information (data, cyber, end point, etc.) security plans.

Stress testing these and bedding them down into the core of the organisation is something that CIOs are best placed to execute on. The call to action is for them to partner with operations leaders, and strategic partners, to make this happen. The most visible impact will be in the digital led reconfiguration and change in supply chain configurations.

For most businesses, especially for consumer businesses, a new challenge awaits as their customers make different demands: digital channels are going to proliferate as shoppers shun the malls, the shift of advertising dollars towards digital platforms will accelerate, partnering with new age firms (BigBasket, Amazon, etc.) will be standard, and digital customer interactions will be the way forward. 

As new front offices, marketing automation (martech), analytics and distribution management platforms are needed, CMOs, chief sales officers and supply chain leaders will turn to the CIO for help. Be prepared to lead. 

Finally, CIOs are uniquely positioned in one dimension: they understand technology better and deeper than anyone else in the organisation. I believe that they can marry this capability with their new found understanding of the industry and business they are serving, and come up with ideas that propel growth, profitability and resiliency. 

For example, they can uniquely introduce the power of blockchain as an instrument of trust in the company’s supply chain. Or deploy next generation behavioural security in the bank’s call centres as a means of fraud prevention. Or introduce the latest personalisation and AI technology to deliver the next generation app experience. 

The possibilities are endless. How well they execute, how well they lead and to what extent they move from the technology to the business world will determine whether CIOs will take advantage of the golden age, or convert it to yet another false dawn.

Jaideep Mehta is CEO of Mosaic Digital, the company that owns and publishes TechCircle. This views in this article are his own.

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