What does the future CIO role look like?

In this piece we explore the skills that CIOs should consider when going through transformation journeys and looking at the future challenges of their job.

Cristina Lago Aug 27th 2018 A-A+

Earlier this month we wrote about the “five golden qualities” that every CIO should have if they want to excel at their job.

There we explained how the senior role has shifted from IT-centric to one that requires business leadership and innovation.

In this article we explore further on the skills that CIOs should consider when going through transformation journeys and looking at the future challenges of their job.

Different waves of CIOs

A CIO in the year 2000 wasn’t the same as a CIO in 2018.

Whereas the traditional CIO role meant that they were the providers of IT with a focus on development and operations, the new IT model envisions the CIO as a broker and orchestrator of services with a particular emphasis on innovation.

David Higginson, CIO at Phoenix Children's Hospital, thinks there has been three waves of the CIO up to this day.

"In the '80s and '90s it was kind of a plumber type person who got the network working, got the servers running, got the emails going, and that was their job," he explained during an interview at the Health IT Conference for 2018. "Next, in the 2000s, we got into having great big budgets and being tasked by the organisation to 'Go make this thing happen.' I think a lot of CIOs today did really well in that project management, system implementation-type field."

The current scene for CIOs is quite different to what it was 20 years ago and now is closely intertwined with the business dimension of an organisation.

The CIO can no longer react to the business strategy but has to be part of the business leadership team that creates it.

"Today's CIO is no longer an engineering expert provisioning hardware and software," said John Halamka, a longtime holder of that title at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "The CIO broadly communicates, convenes governance groups and supports innovation."

Moving beyond tech

On its Changing Role of the CIO report, PwC foresees IT taking on a broader and more strategic role within the business that does not deal exclusively with technology but also requires an important change in the role that IT plays in the organisation.

Although remaining focused on technology is still a necessity of the job, CIOs are now being challenged to use IT strategies and solutions to drive business innovation and transformation.

For 84% of CIOs at top-performing digital businesses, their duties have dramatically expanded beyond IT, with innovation and transformation being their prime responsibilities, according to Gartner’s 2018 CIO Agenda report.

"'Digital' is here and is mainstream," says Andy Rowsell-Jones, VP and analyst at Gartner. "CIOs are moving from experimentation to scaling their digital business initiatives."

The challenge for CIOs will consist in expanding their digital projects so they can provide long-term economies at a broader scope. Effective communication will be an essential skill to achieve this goal

"Culture is not specifically labeled," said Rowsell-Jones. "You can't change what you don't make explicit. Start by clearly articulating why change is required from a business point of view, then delve into what specifically will change."

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 100% of roles in IT will require an intermediate level of proficiency in business acumen to effectively execute on the digital business strategy.

Business leaders and strategists   

Because of businesses increasing dependency on technology, the role of the CIO has become more relevant within an organisation and has also become a close partner and ally to the CEO.

CIO duties will not be exclusively operational but will provide invaluable insights that will guide the board on how to leverage IT and disruptive technologies wisely and strategically.

Strategic business is now an essential part of the CIO role and in order to be successful at it you need to embrace in full.

The focus of the CIO role will change from bottom to top line, with more emphasis on outward-focused activities that create business value and help streamline IT operations. Close engagement with your customer base and listening to users demands will also be crucial.

Arif Harbott, UK’s Ministry of Justice Chief Digital and Information Officer, thinks that in order to be a technology leader you need to be a business leader first:

“First and foremost be a business leader who happens to specialise in digital and technology”, he explains. “You'll need a well-rounded knowledge of finance, procurement, commerce, HR, operations, marketing, etc to have a good chance of being a senior leader.”

The future CIO needs to be a business savvy. There’s nothing more frustrating for senior management and colleagues than lack of business drive and business understanding.

If CIOs are unable to develop an in-depth knowledge of their industry and their clients and customers, they are irremediably doomed to fail.


We all loved that Bruce Lee interview where he says “be water, my friend”. Well, CIOs, be water, my friends!

CIO is a dynamic role that needs to be in constant change in order to succeed and stay afloat. If the job responsibilities have changed in the last 10 years they will keep changing in the next decade again.

Disruptive technologies, as well as digital transformations, will influence and prompt change. The introduction of new legislation can also alter your responsibilities. A pre-GDPR CIO didn’t have the same worries as a post-GDPR one.

The expansion of the CIO role means that other technology-related posts such as the CDO or CTO can fall directly under the former’s responsibility.

New ways of working are required to enable flexibility and responsiveness in the digital world.

In a world changing at the speed of light, only businesses and CIOs able to quickly recognise and adapt to change will be the ones adequately responding to it.