Best Practices & Trends / article

What is a CIO in 2018?

Don’t worry, this isn’t a let’s replace the ‘Information’ in ‘Chief Information Officer’ with another word article. I’m pretty certain that those don’t do us any favors. Chief Innovation, Ideation, Intelligence, or Infrastructure Officer title variations are little more than a distraction to CIOs under pressure to better demonstrate the value of their IT teams.

All the talk that “today’s CIO needs to be a Chief Trendier Word than Information Officer” suggests there is misunderstanding of the CIO role. A CIO handles multiple management responsibilities, not just the one that’s currently in vogue in the business-buzzword world.  

So, regardless of what we call the position, what is a CIO?

Traditional CIO definition

Traditionally, a CIO has been a technology executive responsible for leading and delivering against an organization’s technology strategy. Today, the critical role of technology in business means that CIOs offer broad contributions, from overseeing existing infrastructure to leading digital transformation efforts.

Illustration of coworkers at their computers

Evolution of the CIO

Now, let’s get real about the past and present CIO role before looking forward to the future.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the corporate IT team was viewed as an innovator. Not an IT innovator, but a business innovator. IT teams implemented operational efficiencies, got greater insight into performance, and made new things possible. Technology supercharged business operations, and employees recognized this.

Then came IT’s wilderness years. Please excuse my generalizations about the events that happened next. During this time:

  • IT was perceived as a roadblock to business advancement and success (or at least thought to move too slowly relative to business’ expectations of speed).
  • IT spend focused on “keeping the lights on” rather than consistently delivering new competitive differentiators. Business-as-usual IT spend accounted for 70% of the overall IT budget.
  • IT capabilities were, and perhaps still are, taken for granted, and seen as inferior to consumer-world equivalents.

All of which seems wrong given the way that technology has become a critical part of many companies’ abilities to do business.

The roles and responsibilities of a modern CIO

A modern CIO wears a number of hats.  Below are 3 of the CIO’s key responsibilities.

Infrastructure custodian

The CIO position isn’t being reinvented. CIOs can’t just drop everything that they have been responsible for since the 1980s (or earlier) to focus on living-up to a new job title.

The CIO still owns the core responsibility of overseeing infrastructure. Of course, new technologies and IT management approaches can help to lessen the burden of “keeping the lights on” and leading the IT organization.

Chief information officer

It’s healthy to remember that the ‘I’ in CIO stands for information. But, how many CIOs and IT professionals spend way more time on the ‘technology’ than the ‘information’ in IT? Successful businesses are built on good decisions, and good decisions are built on good information and data.

The CIO, and his or her team, should provide the capabilities for the organization to act on better information about markets, products, services, costs and margins, operational efficiency, improvement opportunities, etc.  

Digital transformation leader

Perhaps most importantly as we look toward the future, a CIO should lead digital transformation – from establishing an enterprise-wide understanding of what it means, to successfully supporting the corporate digital-transformation strategy.


A common digital transformation definition can be used to better understand what this involves in terms of business outcomes:

“…the use of technology to radically improve performance or reach of enterprises… to change customer relationships, internal processes and value propositions.” -- The Nine Elements of Digital Transformation

Digital transformation is about better business, so it goes beyond the IT organization. And, leading a successful digital transformation requires that people change as much as technology changes. In this case, the CIO must approach digital transformation with a perspective beyond spending more on technology.

Successful digital transformation requires the CIO to:

  1. Champion and deliver new products and services that leverage technology and data. This involves business innovation that may or may not involve technology innovation. Here, the CIO is involved in bringing in new customers and revenues (land, expand, and retain).
  2. Enable customer engagement. Contributing to customer acquisition, from developing easy-to-use pre-sales scenarios to better customer service experiences, and nurturing business relationships for the long term.
  3. Develop back-office operations. The CIO should focus on faster, cheaper, better operations. If the back office is trapped in the business-process equivalent of the Dark Ages, there’s little reason to invest in front-office improvements (the points mentioned above).
  4. Market the IT organization. There’s also a need for the CIO to demonstrate the value of the IT organization by sharing its services and its successes. The CIO must demonstrate the strategic importance of IT to building the business of the future.

With responsibility to take on digital transformation and other business critical projects, the role of the CIO is more visible than before. Between maintaining infrastructure, coming up with new ways to use information and data to drive business forward, and leading digital transformation efforts, today’s CIOs have a lot on their plates.

About the author

Stephen Mann

Independent IT and IT service management consultant

Stephen Mann is an independent IT and IT service management (ITSM) content creator, and a frequent blogger, writer, and presenter on the challenges and opportunities for ITSM professionals. He has previously held positions in IT research and analysis (at IT industry analyst firms Ovum and Forrester), ITSM consultancy, enterprise IT service desk and IT product management, IT asset management, innovation and creativity facilitation, project management, finance consultancy, internal audit, and most recently SaaS ITSM tool product marketing.

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