What is a Chief Information Officer (CIO)?

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Chief Information Officer, reporting for duty. Sneaking through the trenches, into enemy lines. Sending a Morse-code encrypted message to the home office. I think I might have misunderstood the title. 

The Chief Information Officer is less about compiling covert spy info, and more about being responsible for IT strategy. Which is just as exciting. 

So, what are the day to day responsibilities of a CIO? What are their goals and aims? Who does a CIO report to, and how can they be successful? All these questions, and more, will be answered. But let's start with:

What is a CIO?

The main responsibility of a CIO is the Information Technology strategy. They will also usually manage a team of IT specialists, whose role is to maintain the day-to-day functioning of IT operations. 

So, the CIO is responsible for the management, implementation, and usability of IT tech. So, we can all guess why this role has grown exponentially within the last decade: as digital usage has increased, there is a need for someone to keep a watchful eye on, and deliver outcomes with, the IT strategy.

As tech is reshaping industries, the role of the CIO has also changed and grown in importance. The CIO will see how various technologies will benefit the company, or improve a process, and then integrate this system. 

So, a CIO oversees the people, platforms, processes and technologies needed to ensure profitable outcomes which support the goals of the business. 

The Universe of The Chief Information Officer | A CIO's Voice

Though, in the past, the CIO role used to require a highly skilled technician, this is no longer the case. Since the turn of the millennium, the CIO role has become a far more outward-facing role.

With the use of cloud computing, and outsourcing, many technological solutions are no longer sourced directly by the in-house IT team - this means CIOs have to take a strategic view, and become strategically minded. So, as the position has evolved, there's a need for the individual to have business and strategic skills.

"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.

So, the CIOs of today aren't just skilled technicians. They also need to be business-focused. This means understanding and possessing the knowledge of the various business functions within their organisation, how their company operates, and how it defines success. 

In order to be successful, then, a CIO must have a collection of skills that go beyond the technical. These look like leadership qualities, and people skills, that will inspire their staff and fellow execs, in order to keep them on board with the frequent technological changes, and shifts in working. 

Chris Bedi, CIO at ServiceNow, predicts that CIOs will begin to shape more HR issues. Due to the influx of new tech, and the new skills needed to use this tech, the CIO will need to take on a bigger part of their company's people strategy. This means being involved in hiring and training, and identifying who needs to be developed over the near and medium term. 

"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," Chris 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."

But the CIO's list of skills doesn't just stop there. CIOs must also have the ability to look outside their organisation, and understand market forces. To figure out how IT can generate business value, they must understand and respond to a number of market forces including innovations in technology, vendor product offerings, disruptive technology, and a shifting customer base. They also must be decision-makers. 

"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."

TLDR; What are the Roles and Responsibilities of a CIO?

  • Ownership of the overall IT strategy
  • Establishing, maintaining, and overseeing the technology architecture and choices
  • Training and strategy
  • Establishing and maintaining the infrastructure to align with budget and resources
  • Purchasing tech
  • Deploying tech
  • Evaluating tech
  • Optimising technology resources, be it software, hardware, staff, or spending. 
  • Collaborating with the chief information security offer, to keep an eye on established and needed cybersecurity frameworks
  • Researching and evaluating emerging technologies

What Will the CIO Look Like in the Future?

Well, we've established the evolution of the CIO so far. From engineering skills, to tech skills, to business skills, the role has transformed with the landscape. What's next?

Rahul Singh, managing director with management consultancy Pace Harmon, believes the role will transform again, into what he's calling a "Chief Digital Innovation Officer". This position will help the company grown, specifically into a data-driven enterprise

"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," 

"CIOs will need to sharpen their business skills and build relationships with the CEOs and GMs so they can collaborate as strategic partners."

What is the Difference between a CIO and an IT Director?

The difference between the roles is their focus. IT directors tend to be focused on day-to-day operations, whereas CIOs are more focused on strategy and leadership. Basically, CIOs face outwards, and IT Directors face inwards. 

Some IT directors will report to CIOs, especially those working for large organisations. But for smaller companies, they may not even have a CIO; this means the job title IT director will be used for their head of technology.

What is the Difference between a CIO and a Chief Technology Officer?

Just like the IT director, a Chief Technology Office will often report to the CIO. But this isn't always the case. 

In some companies, the CIO is responsible for setting the strategy, and maintaining the relationships established in the business as a whole, and with other teams.

This involves explaining how a piece of tech can improve the work of that team, or the business, through streamlining the supply chain, or optimising business processes for example. The CTO will, instead, look for innovative and emerging technologies that could act as a catalyst for this. 

Who Does the CIO Report to?

Consultant Deloitte found 33 percent of CIOs report to the CEO, 22 percent to the CFO, 11 percent to the COO and nine percent to a global CIO. 

However, dotted lines aren't uncommon. The CIO can often report to a number of execs, depending on an organisation's internal lines of communication and ongoing initiatives. Being available to a bunch of teams is the nature of the role, after all. 

There is a belief that IT leaders should report to the CEO, keeping the role of technology front-and-centre in the business. However, reporting to the CFO can help in a different way - budget. This partnership can ensure IT budgets are clearly defined and understood, and cost control can remain the top priority. 

Not the CIO You're Looking For?

Right, this next section is for people who have gotten a bit lost. The 'CIO' acronym can also be used for a couple more job descriptions. So, I'm listing them here, to avoid any confusion. You can't say we don't spoil you.

  • Chief Investment Officer. A CIO of the investment world. The Chief Investment Officer is the executive who manages the oversight of investments at a company. They are often in charge of allocating a company's portfolios.
  • Chief Innovation Officer. A Chief Innovation Officer's role is involved in products. They would be responsible for identifying, developing, and launching new products and services.

    They also build and grow the innovation capabilities of a company, to make the brand more desirable. They may also work on keeping the brand unique; in the way it appears in the market, to the customers, and in the long-term relationships it hopes to build with those customers. 

This post is part of our "What is a..." series, which compiles the top job roles in the martech industry today. Others include: