Recently Parker Avery’s CEO Robert Kaufman was interviewed by a media analyst about how COVID changed the role of the CIO. We all know the global pandemic brought about severe changes in most industries. However, to a large extent, the focus was on how things changed as opposed to the impact on roles, responsibilities, and even the perceptions of many roles. To be sure, now that things are settling into what we all hope to be a less disruptive environment, corporate leadership must put priority on the organization and what changes are needed to ensure viability and success moving forward. This week, we capture Robert’s perspectives on changes he witnessed in the CIO role.

Expanded Power and Influence

Throughout the pandemic, many companiesin particular consumerfacing industries like retail and CPG—had to very quickly address omnichannel fulfillment capabilities, such as curbside pickup. As such, CIOs were forced to address the pressure from other C-level executives to find scrappy solutions—or their companies may have perished.  The proverb “Invention is the mother of necessity” made IT and business teams collaborate to quickly build and deploy solutions that would traditionally take months or even years to come to fruition prior to the pandemic.  Most organizations, led by CIOs and their teams, rose to the challenge and delivered capabilities customers demanded, such as contactless pickup, cashless payment options, and home delivery.  

CIOs had no choice but to step up, and whether intentional or not, their power and influence quickly expanded. Inside many companies, CIOs were leading daily and intraday crisis meetings with other business leaders, providing CIOs a platform unlike any they had been afforded in the past. CIOs were afforded latitude to deliver capabilities that would address the current crises in their organizations with the understanding that perfection was not necessary. Further it was understood that incremental adjustments and improvements over time were acceptable.  The savvy CIOs managed their peers’ expectations so that the initial imperfect solutions were beneficial and kept the organization afloat. 

Prior to the pandemic, such an approach would often have been met with negativity. Further, it is likely that many new capabilities would never have been deployed.  CIOs were given the opportunity to change the playbook – and they did.

Prioritized Business Partnership

A significant and positive impact of CIOs having more power is really linked to the influence progressive CIOs gained through partnership with their business stakeholders to address critical needs.  Many CIOs had the ear of the C-Suite and were seen not simply as technology providers, but rather integral to achieving key business objectives.  With the pandemic, this closer partnership became essential and showed the power that CIOs wield and could manifest in the future.

The real question is whether the business leadership will make partnering with IT a priority. This partnership is key to replicating the speed with which solutions were brought to market during the pandemic.  Some CIOs would likely prefer to return to a more measured approach to solution delivery. However, the most opportunistic organizations can and should leverage the rapid delivery model to leapfrog their competition.  Delighting customers and end consumers, as well as strengthening business partnerships, will continue to be the key to success and a major driver of future initiatives. CIOs that continue to be catalysts for delivery of these successful initiatives will retain greater power and influence, while elevating their platform within their companies. This organizational mindset shift will afford these roles greater opportunities to provide C-level direction in addressing business opportunities and challenges.

Cultural norms will also determine the permanence of the CIOs’ role.  If IT had a secondary role before the pandemic and leadership did not change their perception of the importance of the IT executive, the role of the CIO will regress to pre-pandemic servitude.  But when given the opportunity to have an equal say within the C-Suite, CIOs and their business partners will align business and technology strategies, and CIOs will be given the responsibility for delivering mission-critical capabilities.

Strategically minded CIOs relish the ability to be an executive partner in the delivery of key capabilities and to be more business focused.  The permanence of this change in IT influence will be determined more by the willingness of the business leaders, CFOs, COOs, CSCOs, and CMOs, to cede some control to CIOs. 

Innovation Delivered Incrementally—But Quickly

The other factor that could ease the CIOs influence is any inability to deliver timely impactful solutions.  The role of an effective CIO, even prior to the pandemic, extends far beyond the technology constituents and requires diligence in managing and delivering on the expectations of internal and external partners and stakeholders, as well as end users.

The unparalleled responsiveness and ability to pivot exhibited by effective IT organizations during the pandemic should beg the question of why solutions could not be deployed more quickly during non-disruptive periods.  Were CIOs the reason for the more deliberate and often unsuccessful approach to delivering new capabilities?  Was there a bureaucratic process to get initiatives approved?  Did perfection become “the enemy of good” and derail initiatives?   

An after-action analysis may not be the most productive activity if companies have transitioned to the new rapid delivery model of key capabilities. However for those that have regressed, it should be an essential pursuit.  Optimizing the decision-making process within an organization and delivering innovations incrementally but very quickly, will be the future way of working for successful organizations.

If the approach to delivery is cumbersome and your CIO is not advocating for change, leadership must assess the organization’s post-pandemic solution delivery speed and capabilities. Further, if rapid incremental capability deliveries are not a standard way of operating—or the company is not actively working towards that objective—both IT and business leaders alike should evaluate the reasons why and determine what must change to enable future success. 

Contact Parker Avery