The Chief Information Officer (CIO) came into being during the 1980’s as someone who oversaw the IT department’s resources and staff. Later they rewrote this perception to emerge from the back office to become strategic partners in a business, working alongside C-suite peers. Today, CEOs are often looking up to the CIOs to drive innovation and revenue-generating ideas across an enterprise. A far cry from the joke that the alphabets had become in the early 2000s – Career Is Over!
Today, CIOs across many organizations are leading the ideation and execution of digital transformation initiatives. While many of these focus around customer experience, the CIO is also an important cog while debating cross-functional efforts that seek collaboration and leadership with a strong dose of emotional intelligence. VC Gopalratnam, SVP-IT and CIO at Cisco, explains the ever-expanding role of CIOs in a digital economy during a chat with CXOToday.
The New CFO Emerges
While CIOs have generally acted as a kind of service-provider in the past – primarily dealing with the practical elements of ensuring that networks were functional, and creating cost-effective utility – leveraging technology has become fundamental to business strategy, innovation and success. Today’s CIOs adapt, step up and lead, he says.
“I believe that today’s CIO should be called the CFO, where ‘F’ is not finance, ‘F’ is flexibility. Today, our employees, our customers, are able to dictate how they want to consume services, where they want to consume services, how much they are willing to pay for it, and who should be the provider of that service.”
As a CIO, one cannot be rigid anymore about not embracing a technology or stick to one direction, and hence one needs to be commercially savvy to understand. “CIOs are required to be open to partnering with other groups and should be open to buying versus building. Fundamentally, it all comes down to prioritization, where CIOs need to understand the three to four big rocks that your CEO wants to move in the next one or two years. This will help in aligning your resources which will further assist in making the organization more dynamic and flexible,” he said.
Tech Trends to Note
There are various trends driving the CIO’s changing role. DevOps allows for rapid organizational transformation using technology; IoT is connecting infrastructure in incredible new ways; while analytics and machine learning, powered by Big Data, are vital to these processes as well as the entire strategy and value-proposition of a business. In each case, information is central, says Gopalratnam, suggesting that the CIO is ideally situated to lead their implementation.
Unfortunately, this transition to leadership and strategy is lagging. Very few executives are satisfied with their IT functions beyond managing infrastructure and basic services, and non-IT executives often indicate strikingly different priorities from their IT counterparts – reflecting a lack of necessary organizational changes. However, when CIOs are highly involved in enterprise-wide strategy, not only is IT effectiveness higher, but it also facilitates crucial business activities such as new-market entry and innovative product creation. It is here where CIOs can maximize value-creation.
Additionally, the CIO needs to ensure that the company stays relevant to its customers and employees. They need to ensure that they give the best experience to their customers as customers who have multiple choices on a given day, he says.
“With the rapidly changing world and numerous technology transitions happening at the same time, I think the only sustainable competitive advantage in the world today is talent. Currently, there is a shortage of the right talent. If the organizations need to focus on a specific area, then they need to have the right talent,” he says.
Along with business acumen, IT leaders need to have an understanding on architecture skills, particularly in areas like cloud and security, software engineering, user experience, data analytics. With a lot of work going in AI and ML, people have started to recognize that AI and ML can do things much better than human beings when it is role-based. However, it will eliminate some jobs, and in this process, it will create more value for new jobs. Hence, jobs are going to get better and not lesser with the advent of AI and ML.
Getting Digital Right
Every company you talk to is doing digital in some way or the other. But there is indeed a challenge how many of them are doing it right. “Each person has their interpretation of how digital transformation must take place. Similarly, enterprises also have their own understanding. Ultimately, you have to do what makes sense to you as an enterprise. There is no magic formula or template, which specifies the things you must do as part of digital transformation.”
“From Cisco’s perspective, five components make up digital transformation. The first one is how we use the cloud to deliver services. The second is around the fact that we need to have universal connectivity through a network. If you are going to provide services to customers, employees or citizens, you need connectivity. The third component is associated with the deriving value from the data that is generated. In other words, the key is making sense of the data such as demographic data, pricing data, customer data, supply chain and more. You need to maximize value out of this data and be able to make decisions with it. The fourth one is around the concern for data privacy and confidentiality due to which you have to embed security in everything that you do. The last one is the experience. It does not matter how excellent the solution is, if it is tough to use, nobody will use it.”
Gopalratnam also believes that when companies talk about digitization or digital transformation, the network is often an ignored topic, although it is one of the foundations. He says, “For Cisco, networking has been at the core, due to which we will never diminish the importance of the network. What connects the users, the devices, the applications, and the data is the network. In a digital world, people need to be able to work from anywhere, any device and have access to any application that they want. The only thing that makes that happen in a public, private, or a hybrid environment is the network. In a cloud world, nobody cares where the service is coming from.”
For instance, if you sign up with Airtel for a solution, you are not interested in the complexity that exists in the telco. You are only concerned with the fact that when you switch it on, it works. The data could be virtualized, the application can be virtualized, and it could be on the cloud, but you do not worry about any of that. That is what happens in a digital transformation to be precise. People who consume the service need to be abstracted from the complexity of the backend. It is the CIOs of the organization who need to take care of that complexity, he explains.
To step up, CIOs should rewrite their job description, and change their role within the organization. With digital technology not only central to the functioning but also the strategy of a business, CIOs need to move from auxiliary service-providers to leaders. “This necessitates creating a direct relationship with the CEO – building a rapport that ensures that the implementation of technology aligns with the business’s aspirations,” he sums up.