A few years ago, many large companies employed a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to incorporate operational efficiencies into the businesses, reduce costs, maintain security, and “keep the lights on.”

But now CIOs are in the spotlight as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the pace and scale of change. CIOs must continue to manage their typical domains of business security, recovery, and continuity, but now there is an unprecedented urgency for them to drive business transformation and growth as companies adapt to a new “abnormal.” The role of the CIO is now more relevant than ever as companies work to shape and guide their organizations through and beyond the pandemic.

“It’s the CIO’s time to shine,” says Paul Roehrig, Head of Strategy for Cognizant Digital Business, a division within Cognizant driving digital transformation through AI, IoT, and digital engineering. “It’s not news that they’re helping drive the business, but their role in the pandemic has gotten exponentially more essential.” 


“Digital that matters”

Digital technology is the enabler that drives remote work, agile responses to crises, and — more generally speaking — the predominant style of communication that is possible right now: on phones and computers. As such, it presents new opportunities for growth and transformation in our current scenario where more traditional, in person, slower, or manual ways of doing business are impossible or impractical. According to a recent Deloitte study, organizations in 2020 are seeking out CIOs who are focused on foundational transformation rather than incremental change.

Today's business leaders expect technology leaders to be change drivers who fundamentally alter the way the company operates and does business.”

Deloitte | 2020 Global Technology Leadership Study

“Not only can they hone strategies for managing the recovery,” Deloitte writes, “but they can also prepare for and lead tech-driven transformation that could help their businesses thrive. Today's business leaders expect technology leaders to be change drivers who engage in large-scale strategic projects that fundamentally alter the way the company operates and does business.”

CIOs are central to business strategy now, but this importance won’t go away in the long term. Roehrig believes we’re at the very early stages of what he calls “digital that matters.” That is, not another app of convenience but technology that fundamentally changes, for example, how we bank, manage healthcare, and learn. At the center of these business transformations is the CIO. According to the Deloitte report, 50% of CEOs now see the CIO as the key driver of business strategy in the next three to five years. 


From CIO to CEO

At the same time, CIOs have new mandates in the COVID era, and they may be measured on new criteria like whether their workforce is fully productive while working remote, and whether the organization can serve its customers entirely digitally, according to Box Inc. CEO Aaron Levie.

There are other new things too. The CIOs purview now includes: ensuring employees’ well-being, scaling capacity for virtual events, and understanding customer needs, says Salesforce EVP and CIO Jo-ann Olsovsky. 

“None of us has ever lived through anything like this,” says Olsovsky. “A big part of our job is to enable our people and be more relevant than ever for our customers, because they have new needs. The CIO is in a unique position to support customer success because we see the entire company."

She goes on to explain that finance, marketing, sales, and other departments typically swim in their own lanes. But IT’s cross-functional perch enables it to impact every corner of the business.

That unique vantage point, coupled with COVID-related opportunities to fundamentally transform the business, could create new paths for CIOs to advance to the level of CEO. The last time such an opportunity came along was 2016, according to Peter High, president of business and IT strategy firm Metis Strategy.

Remember when IT was a cost center? Neither do I.”

Jo-ann Olsovsky | Salesforce EVP and CIO

Writing in Forbes, High says that 2016 was a turning point as some high profile CIOs (from EMC, Tesla, Starbucks, Fifth Third Bank, Facebook, and others) went on to become founder CEOs or CEOs at existing companies. Their rise came in the seventh year of a bull market, he notes, in which these CIOs “helped companies … through great periods of expansion and innovation.”

That same year, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff predicted at the Forbes CIO Summit that more CIOs would become CEOs, “because to become the CEO, you’re going to need this [digital] capability,” he said, adding that boards of directors are “getting a lot of exposure to the CIO, and then the board says that the CIO has got that vision, has that idea and knows the digital transformations that we have to make to get back to growth. And the growth is going to come from the delivery of these next generation services. That’s the CEO’s job.”

Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic is contracting the U.S. economy which could present a similar opportunity for CIOs. Deloitte found that 69% of C-suite executives and board members surveyed, identified attributes like change, vision, and innovation as the new defining characteristics of successful tech leaders — characteristics that will be important as organizations navigate the impact of the pandemic.

This new breed of leaders, it notes, have already stretched their expertise beyond their traditional tech domain to envision new business strategies, drive innovation and execute broad organizational transformation. All of this helps companies charge paths and create a lasting competitive advantage that will continue to lead the way as the pandemic eventually subsides.

“CIOs had already begun wrestling with the challenges and opportunities of the digital economy, and the pandemic has obviously accelerated that imperative,” says Roehrig. “Leaders in every sector are deploying technology to create frictionless consumer experiences, while controlling costs, all in a world that has gotten more virtual literally overnight. We are truly at the dawn of a new era, but the sun is rising twice as fast.”

COVID has accelerated the evolution of the CIO from a support function to that of a business leader  — just like it’s accelerated adaptation of low-code technology, video calls, and more efficient work-from-home models. It is not an understatement to say that no other role has risen to prominence more quickly, and been more indispensable to the business, than that of the CIO in 2020. In short, the role has changed forever. 

“Remember when IT was a cost center? Neither do I,” says Olsovsky.

Read more sage advice from one CIO.