CIO role: 8 ways the pandemic has changed it forever

CIO role: 8 ways the pandemic has changed it forever

The CIO's place as a cross-functional business leader has crystallized during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some other ways the role is evolving, according to CIOs

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If it was not entirely evident before a global pandemic swept the world, leaving us with little but digital interfaces to connect us, then it is crystal clear now: There is no meaningful line between business and technology. Post-COVID-19, there is no going back. The crisis has crystallized the significant shift in the CIO role that was already underway from technology leader to cross-functional business leader.

“I don’t think it has changed the direction in which we’ve been heading. I think that our more progressive CIOs had already shifted in this way,” says IT management consultant and executive coach Bob Kantor. “What I do think the pandemic has done is clarified this reality and incented more CIOs to get on board with being business leaders, and not just technology leaders.”

[ Want to learn more CIO priorities? Read CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers. ]

That may be the most fundamental way in which this pandemic has changed the CIO role for good, but it’s not the only one.

CIO role post-pandemic: 8 realities

Here’s what CIOs and IT leaders say about their role and how it has changed:

1. Business partnership can't be a part-time job

“The call to action is to be fully present with the business side,” says New York Life senior vice president and business information officer Dave Castellani. “This means fully comprehending the problems, issues, and challenges and presenting multiple solutions for consideration. Inquiry, careful thought, and innovative solutions will yield improved relations.”

CIOs who want to improve business relations will understand one size doesn’t fit all. “Sitting with the businesses and understanding the direction and particular needs will go a long way,” says Carol Lynn Thistle, managing director with CIO executive recruiting firm Heller Search Associates.

[ Also read: Digital transformation: 5 ways COVID-19 is forcing positive changes. ]

2. The CIO is the driver of business continuity

“When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in full force, we had to ensure our virtual bandwidth for employees and call center agents would support approximately 30,000 employees working from home,” says Bill VanCuren, senior vice president and CIO at NCR Corporation. “We had prepared for such a disaster recovery scenario in the past, but putting the wheels in motion required significant IT-led collaboration and communication across all business units.”

3. IT leaders co-own employee and customer experience

"The pandemic is bringing the integral role IT plays in customer service and employee engagement to the forefront."

Just as important as the technical aspects of business continuity were the human elements. “The pandemic is bringing the integral role IT plays in customer service and employee engagement to the forefront,” says Scott duFour, Global CIO at FLEETCOR. “Specifically, our IT team is keeping the workforce productive, while ensuring our customers continue to have access to the products and services they rely upon during the pandemic.”

In the early stages of lockdown, FLEETCOR’s IT leaders enabled a remote work model and opened the door for new ways to recruit and retain employees, as well as novel approaches to sell to customers. 

4. CIOs will drive creative new customer experiences

What happens when the face-to-face interactions that have long driven sales and marketing are no longer viable options? That’s the problem that New York Life’s Castellani has been working with his business partners to solve. “What has shifted permanently is the customer interface experience, recognizing that some element of social distancing will remain,” Castellani says. “Step one is to carefully define this new experience and in doing so adjust the digital journey map.”

5. The CIO needs a strong bench

"The importance of having an effective IT leadership team who can develop quality, meaningful relationships with other business units is critical."

“CIOs cannot be everywhere at once,” says VanCuren of NCR. “One individual does not scale, so the importance of having an effective IT leadership team who can develop quality, meaningful relationships with other business units is critical.” Those leaders need a seat at the business table and to be involved in strategic prioritization from the start.

6. Agility is essential to IT leadership

COVID-19 illustrated how quickly a company’s strategic outlook can change. “As business priorities evolve, so too must IT. CIOs must be able to act quickly and decisively in order to survive and stay relevant,” VanCuren says. “Being responsive and taking a collaborative approach to evolving market and organizational needs will improve any CIO’s personal value.”

At FLEETCOR, each line of business has a dedicated CIO as their business partner. “This gives our business a big advantage because it provides more agility for each line of business to address priorities with local knowledge and focused solutions,” duFour says.

7. CIO insight is critical to business strategy

This shift has been ongoing over the past five years with CIOs becoming key contributors to corporate strategy and – in many cases – driving revenue, says Thistle of Heller Search Associates. “This trend will continue, but CIOs must think about the business differently in this new world of ours,” Thistle says. “The CIO will be at the forefront, as businesses navigate in unchartered waters, whether that means determining how a business stays relevant, or how to keep up with a demand that couldn’t have been foreseen.”

IT’s role has expanded beyond business infrastructure into product development at FLEETCOR. “The pandemic has given IT more of a strategic and valued voice,” duFour says. “In addition, our IT employees have shifted from primarily focusing on tactical execution to also providing strategic insights.”

8. IT leaders must get creative

Looking ahead, CIOs will see demand swell even as their budgets are compressed. “CIOs need to deliver high value at a low cost,” says Castellani. “Importantly, previously agreed upon plans may need to be reexamined, recalibrated, and adjusted to meet new demands.”

Multi-year integration and consolidation of systems may be no more. “CEOs and executive leadership teams don’t want to spend money on multi-year expensive programs just for the sake of integration,” says Thistle. “An upgrade to an existing system may provide more value, cause less disruption, and minimize costs. CIOs need to read tea leaves these days, and that will improve business relationships.”

[ Are you leading through change? Get our eBook: The Open Organization Guide to IT Culture Change, featuring advice from 20+ IT practitioners, industry leaders, and technologists.]

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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.

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