CIO role: 9 ways it will evolve in 2020

What’s next for CIOs? Cross-functional teams, design thinking, careful attention to partners, and above all, talent management and relationship skills, are priorities for 2020 – and beyond
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CIOs must move past the 'IT guy' stereotype

Digital transformation is fundamentally changing the way enterprises view and value IT. “IT has evolved from being considered a technology-driven cost center where the CEO’s directive to IT was to cut costs and optimize, to being valued as a business-aligned, strategic asset that can help fuel the growth of the company and provide competitive differentiation,” says Rahul Singh, managing director with management consultancy Pace Harmon.

Successful CIOs lead digital business units or empower IT to create a digital backbone.

Naturally, the CIO role has been shifting as well. “Successful CIOs have become business leaders of digital business units or have empowered IT organizations to create the digital backbone to accelerate the move to hybrid cloud environments and new operating models,” says Steve Hall, partner and president at technology research and advisory firm ISG. Others have struggled and seen more of their responsibilities be taken over by other functions or business units.

[ Want more context about the modern CIO role? Read also: CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers. ]

CIO role in 2020: Key trends

But there’s certainly more change ahead for the top IT leaders. We’ve gathered some of the most significant ways the CIO role will evolve over the next year – and beyond, according to CIOs and those who work with them:

1. Shifting from information to innovation

In 2020, the image of CIO as business leader and member of the strategic leadership team will be cemented in more organizations. Singh describes the CIO as evolving into what he calls a “Chief Digital Innovation Officer,” enabling company growth and transformation into a data-driven enterprise through the deployment of technologies.

“This step will require CIOs to gain a better understanding of not just new digital technologies and how to cost-effectively operate them, but also to better understand the specific business their enterprise is in and how IT can drive new revenue opportunities and accelerate company growth,” Singh says. “CIOs will need to sharpen their business skills and build relationships with the CEOs and GMs so they can collaborate as strategic partners.”

Not every CIO will be able to make that shift. “CIOs that do lead the digital transformation charge are asked to wear multiple hats – that of business strategist and change leader,” says Ankur Laroia, managing director at BDO Houston. “It’s not always a natural fit.”

2. Return of decision-maker clout

“We’ve seen a swing back towards IT as decision-makers as digital transformation starts to mature.”

After several years of IT vendors and consultants targeting other C-suite leaders and line-of-business heads to engage in digital transformation work, they’re looking back to CIOs again.

“We’ve seen a swing back towards IT as decision-makers as digital transformation starts to mature,” says Patrick Heffernan, senior analyst at Technology Business Research. “As it becomes increasingly clear that even the most CX-focused or operations-centric projects still come back to IT for change management, implementation, and sustainment, CIOs have re-assumed their place as the key decision-makers – and therefore the target, again, for IT services vendors and consultancies.” But as with all pendulum swings, this trend could head back in the opposite direction at some point.

3. Sharpening relationship skills

In 2020, CIOs will need to continue to increase their business acumen and advance their relationship-building skills. “It won’t be good enough to just understand the business needs and develop systems or applications to support. They must be deeply embedded in the business, supply chain, value chain, and P&L, and drive adoption across their areas of responsibility,” says Hall, who predicts that this may lead to the need for multiple CIOs for each corporate function or business unit.

[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader’s guide. ]

4. Increasing focus on people

“CIOs are increasingly being handed the keys to drive digital transformation throughout the organization, including areas that have been traditionally outside their purview,” says Chris Bedi, CIO at ServiceNow.

“IT and HR will begin to work together more closely to create a common framework and language, as well as a joint plan.”

In 2020, CIOs will take a bigger role in HR issues across the enterprise. “Like the CIO, the CHRO is also stepping into a more strategic role, and as a result, the CIO and CHRO are partnering more to make the employee experience as great as the customer experience,” Bedi says. “IT and HR teams are aligned at a high level and want to create great experiences, but they’re also often focused on different initiatives. To achieve both objectives, IT and HR will begin to work together more closely to create a common framework and language, as well as a joint plan.”

Expect CIOs to take more of a lead on hiring and training for new skills and identifying who enterprises need to develop over the near- to medium-term, predicts Heffernan. “CIOs that are active now in setting the training agenda are the ones to watch,” he adds.

5. A more mindful approach to change

On a related note, some CIOs may take a more conservative approach to technology introduction. “That might sound crazy in a digital transformation age, with everyone talking about quantum and AI and all that,” Heffernan says. “But the cost savings that didn’t come with cloud, the expenses that continue to mount with cyber, and the steady realization that every change the CIO makes ripples through the human change management of an enterprise will lead CIOs to be more mindful of taking smaller steps, more constrained change.”

Others will turn to portfolio management:

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.