Examining the Ever-Expanding Role of the CIO

Today’s CIOs are guiding their organizations through a critical period of history. The global  economy is full of post-pandemic opportunities, but the business technology landscape looks a lot different than it did a few years ago—employees are decentralized, customers have new expectations and generative AI is an entirely new wrench being thrown at the system.

Docusign hosted a fireside chat to hear how CIOs at some of today’s most successful companies are addressing these challenges. The panel included Rich Karlgaard (editor-at-large, Forbes); Jae Sook Evans (CIO, Oracle); Paul Clemmons (global emerging ecosystems and alliances leader, Deloitte) and Shanthi Iyer (CIO, Docusign).

Here are some of the highlights:

IT leaders need to redefine their “customers”

Traditionally, a CIO’s job has focused on internal customers—making sure employees are equipped with all the tools they need to work efficiently and comfortably. In the current business landscape, the top-performing CIOs are expanding their job descriptions to include another audience: revenue-producing customers. Pieces clearly under the CIO’s purview are having a direct impact on external consumer experience and the understanding of the role must evolve to account for that.

That shift requires more than just a new mindset, it creates a new set of operational challenges. CIOs must change the way the team builds products, set goals, measures success, etc. It’s not enough to simply give the CIO “a seat at the table” and listen to their strategic ideas, companies should expect the CIO to build functional working relationships with every other team at the table too.

When companies map out the journeys that external customers could follow, that path is a connection of moments that rely on IT performance. There’s mounting pressure to increase speed and look into the future to proactively build what future customers (internal and external) need to be satisfied. That work requires a clear vision and efficient collaboration. Great CIOs are meeting that daunting task by using their own colleagues as internal researchers. When employees are consumers of the products and services that the company is selling, they can offer their own innovative ideas to improve.

Technology goals need to be communicated in the language of company goals

CIOs generally come to the executive suite from a career in technology roles. It’s natural that they speak the language of technology more fluently than the language of executives. To be effective, modern CIOs need to discuss their ideas and objectives in terms that will be understandable to other business leaders. Here’s what that means in practice: a great technology idea will not get approval on its own merits. To be adopted and successfully implemented, a CIO needs to start with a core business objective and work backward to prove how a technology change will achieve that goal.

In previous positions, the CIO may have only needed to ask “Does this make our technology better?” to justify moving forward on a project. But not anymore. At the executive level, the questions have to start more broadly: “What key business outcomes will be affected?”, “Which processes will change?”, “Who are the people being impacted?” and “What does it cost?”

In a lot of cases, the CIO doesn’t need to change the way they generate ideas, they just need to change the way they communicate them. The goal is to position everything as a collective effort that the entire company can benefit from. It might not be natural. The best CIOs do more than just translate their goals to company-wide goals, they’ll implement this practice throughout their team too.

Hybrid work presents an unprecedented balancing act

For the most part, today’s organizations are making plans for a post-pandemic landscape that keeps some of the flexibility of remote work while also bringing back the in-person collaboration of a physical office. The sweet spot is hard to identify. Circumstances have changed significantly since the beginning of 2020 and different employees have different appetites for in-office work. CIOs don’t make this decision on their own, but they need to work with the CEO, CHRO and other leaders to make sure that employees can be productive and happy from any location.

This is tricky territory to navigate because there are a lot of emotions involved. There’s not one silver bullet answer that will satisfy everyone. CIOs need to be prepared for shifting timelines, unexpected one-offs and employee requests for exceptions. There need to be tools to facilitate seamless collaboration between remote and onsite employees while accounting for the unknown unknowns of a real-time workforce experiment.

The biggest challenge ahead is making sure that the in-office experience is ready to meet the needs of employees. If the desired outcomes are more collaborative in-person meetings, the office can’t be the same as it was before the pandemic. It needs to be technologically capable of delivering on the promises of in-person work or else the return-to-work plan will fail.

Generative AI is unlike anything we’ve seen before

Everyone is eager to start using generative AI tools like ChatGPT to get ahead. The question is how. There’s a common excitement about the possibilities of new AI tools, but also a common fear of missing the trend and getting passed.

Generative AI will change the way most businesses run, but it’s hard to predict what exactly the change will be. That feeling isn’t new. The same was true of the move to cloud computing over the last decade. Some teams were excited. Some were fearful. Some moved fast. Some made mistakes. Some succeeded right away. Some needed to try more than once. In the end, everyone learned from their experiments and moved forward. Today, cloud computing is a regular part of everyday life.

The only way to really find out what generative AI can do is to embrace it and carefully test its capabilities. IT teams that allow their customers to experiment within certain limits will find the right balance between opportunity and risk. Similar to other ideas, the best way to gain traction with AI experiments is to start with a high-level company goal and connect new use cases to their impact on those objectives.

Learn more about how the role of the CIO is evolving in our eBook, The Strategic Rise of the CIO.

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