A lot has changed since the first CIO roles emerged in the 1980s.
Personal computers became mainstream. Automation emerged to streamline menial tasks. And data storage shifted to the elusive, omnipresent cloud.
As the technology changes, so do business use cases and the executives needed to lead the way.
The CIO role has, generally, been dictated by technology over time, according to Jonathan Blake Huer, chief learning officer at Eleven Fifty Academy. As technology changes, so do the responsibilities and purview of CIOs. From mainframes to bring your own device to internet-based applications, CIOs lead the enterprise through adapting to new technologies.
When the CIO role first broke out in organizations, it was needed to technically manage a group of engineers and executives frequently came through those technical ranks to fill the role, according to Steve Bates, principal, management consulting at KPMG.
The role shifted in the 1990s when businesses embraced tools such as enterprise resource planning software. "It became much more around the implementation of large, integrated on-prem platforms, and so that role shifted from the technical and operational elements," Bates said.
Then, the rise of the dot-com saw new ways of computing and storage for business to manage, tapping the CIOs for help, according to Bates. It was still a supply and demand relationship. Technology and operational systems were inaccessible without IT fluency, and CIOs stepped in to fill that gap.
The latest change for CIOs has been toward omni-channel digital transformation continuing to change businesses, letting CIOs gain more strategic influence over business outcomes, according to Bates.
Recent evolution of the CIO
CIOs — and other tech-related positions such as CTOs and chief digital officers — "really evolved over these past three to five years to be more outwardly focused, as opposed to inwardly focused," Bates said.
Today, CIOs "need to have a point of view on the business … that [they] didn't need in the past," Bates said. "CIOs are really expected now to deeply understand the business strategy and then translate that into the technology roadmap."
But the CIO has always been tightly tied to operations, too. William Synnott and William Gruber, the individuals that coined the term CIO in a 1981 book about information resource management, originally predicted CIOs would be a pipeline to becoming COOs.
Synnott and Gruber wrote the book to pitch the CIO as a senior-level executive tapping innovative technologies to oversee and strategize information systems in line with business objectives.
"At some level I think that their vision is still correct," Huer said. "The CIO being heavily involved in operations and processes is where things are going."
What businesses look for in today's CIO
The responsibilities of the CIO's role differs depending on who you ask. If you ask a CIO, they'll say communication, business and management are important to the job, according to Huer. But if you ask people outside of the function, they'll typically bring up technical proficiencies.
In reality, it's a combination of the technical and leadership skills making up members of IT leadership.
Becoming a CIO requires a "multidisciplinary toolkit," Bates said. A technical background and data acumen coupled with a strategic vision of the business is necessary to be a modern CIO.
"If the last year has taught us anything, it's that the IT function itself is absolutely core to the execution of the business strategy," Bates said. CIOs are under a new spotlight as they've proved their value through business continuity in response to the pandemic.
The expectations of a CIO can vary depending on who they report to. For example, reporting to the CFO, the CIO may have specific duties around cost and operations.
But when CIOs report to the CEO, "We see that the revenues are actually even higher and their ability to grow and scale is higher because that CIO truly is a part of the decision-making and the discussions on the opportunity," said Kristi Lamar, managing director and U.S. leader for women in technology at Deloitte.
Four in 10 CEOs expect the CIO or equivalent technology leader to become a key driver of business strategy, according to a Deloitte survey of 500 technology and executive leaders. CIOs can expect CEOs and other members of leadership to ask more of them in the coming year.
Lamar recommends CIOs have a seat at the C-suite or board-level table to partner on enterprisewide decisions. When CIOs are relegated further down the organization, it becomes harder to take IT seriously and do transformational work. The CIO becomes an "order taker," slowing down and prohibiting progress on technology, Lamar said.
As appreciation grows for what technology can do, companies have maintained CIOs as a decision-maker higher up in the company. Companies failing to realize the importance of technology — and of their CIOs — will struggle to keep up with transformation, according to Lamar.
Institutional knowledge, or promoting the CIOs from inside the organization, is also prioritized for the role across more organizations today, according to Lamar. Even if the path to becoming CIO is nontraditional, that knowledge combined with executive abilities and tech savviness builds successful CIOs.
CIOs encompass four major areas, according to Lamar:
The operator: keeps the lights on
The technologist: evangelizes new tech capabilities
The strategist: partners with the business
The catalyst: leads disruptive change to how an organization works
The phases shift to accommodate business needs, but generally a CIO needs to operate in all four spaces proportional to enterprise conditions, according to Lamar.
The pandemic and shift to remote work served as a proofpoint for the importance of leadership competencies beyond the technical. In 70% of job searches for a new CIO, companies seek individual determination and sensitivity, according to a Gartner survey of 93 members of the Gartner CIO Research Circle.
Businesses seek communication skills, entrepreneurial tendencies, systems thinking and other core leadership competencies in CIOs today, according to Huer. But those qualities aren't new to the role.
"Since basically the 80s, a great IT leader is just a great leader who's in charge of IT," Huer said.