Image: iStockphoto/fizkes

In the early days of digitalization, CIOs recognized the potential value of advancing technology and led their peers and stakeholders as evangelists, extolling new opportunities and business models through digital. Over a decade, digitalization matured, and CIOs developed new ways to create value through orchestrated technology delivery across the enterprise.

The pandemic was a watershed event to accelerate digitalization. CIOs were called upon to lead as business executives, enabling rapid adjustments to business and operating models to literally keep their enterprises “in business.” The experience also elevated executive understanding of the vital role of technology to achieve agility, resilience and extend customer reach.

Leading CIOs have leveraged their increased experience to make lasting changes to their responsibilities. In a recent Gartner poll, 51% of CIOs reported their CxO peers expect and value their focus on impacting business performance. Fifty-nine percent noted their peers want them to be proactive in bringing new opportunities and options to them. In a Gartner survey of CEOs and senior business executives, technology-related priorities remain within the CEOs’ top five strategic priorities. This means CIOs have a steady stream of leadership opportunities to leverage technology to help achieve business goals.

Now, CIOs must look to the next evolution of their role. Digitalization is no longer a large, centrally driven effort, but rather a continuous series of efforts within almost every function, with an increased focus on achieving payback from existing investments. CxOs recognize they must also be accountable leaders of technology and want to partner with CIOs to achieve the right structure for technology democratization. Finally, automation and the advancement of AI are rapidly changing the business technology landscape.

As CIOs face the next era of digitalization, they can deliver executive leadership and expand their responsibilities in four ways.

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1. Expand by leading non-IT business initiatives

Digitalization is a recognized path to achieving business outcomes, and CIOs have demonstrated they’re outcome driven. Highly effective CIOs lead business initiatives beyond IT, including major transformation programs. CIOs are often focused on leading operational optimization initiatives but have demonstrated they can also lead initiatives in customer experience, support business strategy development and provide digital products and services to achieve strategic business outcomes.

To increase impact, CIOs should focus on the outcomes their CxO partners must accomplish and actively work with CxOs to offer and deliver expanded leadership that can impact those goals. This will demonstrate that enterprise outcomes are achievable through digital technology and can be accomplished with CIO executive leadership.

2. Expand by leading non-IT business teams

CIOs can also take on permanent leadership of teams beyond their IT organization. CIOs often leverage their abilities to organize and lead multidisciplinary teams including teams providing shared services across functions. As enterprises accelerate and expand digitalization, many CIOs have also taken on the role of Chief Digital Officer, which can include leading digital product teams, innovation teams, engineering teams and those related to digital channels and customer experience.

To lead teams beyond IT, it’s important to learn the language of any functional area you want to lead by proactively developing business acumen in nontechnology areas. Learn the financial value system and model of the targeted functional areas by seeking supporters and coaches across the C-suite and beyond. CIOs who have led business initiatives beyond IT leverage this experience to demonstrate an interest in permanently leading any newly developed functional capabilities.

3. Expand by leading the C-suite to achieve digital democratization by design

As digital becomes mainstream, so must executive leadership of technology development and operation. A Gartner survey found that CEOs and senior business executives want more technology work done directly within business departments and less done only in IT. To continue achieving the benefits from technology anywhere in the enterprise, a democratized form of technology leadership and delivery is needed.

For many enterprises, technology democratization has happened by necessity or opportunistically, enabled by insightful functional leaders who recognized the need for specialized technology talent on their teams. However, as enterprises continue to invest in advancing technology to achieve important outcomes, leaders across the enterprise must develop and operate more technology as part of their value streams.

CIOs can embrace and lead the application of emerging best practices of digital democratization by design and at the same time expand their impact on the enterprise business and operating model:

  • Lead up with the senior executive team and board of directors to incorporate democratized technology initiatives and new delivery approaches into the business strategy and enterprise operating models. Distribute technology leadership across the C-suite to intelligently own and operate technology within any given function. Modify business governance mechanisms to determine when technology development and delivery should be distributed or provided as a shared capability by the IT function and set accountabilities and responsibilities accordingly.
  • Lead across CxO partners to design and create new team structures, adopt new ways of working and form tech communities to enable business technologists and leverage specialized skills from IT technologists.
  • Lead with CxO partners to identify and partner with technology providers and ecosystem agents to equip all technologists and teams with platforms of development tools and technology workbenches.
  • Lead down to IT leaders and technologists within all functions, including IT, to establish new digital technology foundations that enable the maximum achievement of technology value across the enterprise.

4. Expand by leading the evolution of the IT function

Throughout the history of technology in business, the IT function has evolved significantly. CIOs need to lead the design and operation of the next manifestation of the IT function to transform the shared services they provide to fit with more democratized technology delivery. Democratization isn’t only about moving technology into business functions, but about finding the optimal way to produce and operate all needed technology. This isn’t a cookie cutter reality — every enterprise will need CIO leadership to determine the optimal design for the technology foundation.

CIOs must work with their IT leaders to engage with business leaders to determine the best form of the operating model. Identify the most effective set of shared IT capabilities to provide as the foundation to support all forms of technology delivery. Assess how to shape IT capabilities into a robust set of platforms using advanced methods — such as product management and fusion teams — and practices — such as outcome-driven metrics and objectives and key results — to create a new digital foundation.

Today’s CIO has proven their ability to lead beyond IT and execute as a top executive, taking on more responsibilities and leading new approaches to fully optimize the potential of digital technology in any business model. Tomorrow’s CIO must continue to run towards business challenges and seek to contribute as an outcome-driven leader.

Gartner analyst Irving Tyler.
Irving Tyler. Image: Gartner

Irving Tyler is a distinguished research vice president at Gartner, Inc. focusing on the role of the CIO as executive leader and technology executive. Irving and other Gartner analysts will provide the latest insights on the evolution of the CIO role at Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo, taking place October 1619, in Orlando, Florida.

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