CIOs: Agents Of Change In The Digital Economy

Irfan Khan

Chief information officers I meet with often find themselves in a quandary. They have played a critical role for their organization by “keeping the lights on” – ensuring that technologies and systems are working effectively. Their responsibilities have focused squarely on making sure that technological infrastructure is sound and business processes run optimally.

But today’s CIOs need to expand their focus. With digital disruption reshaping nearly every industry, an effective CIO must lead innovation, forging a path for others in making the transformational changes needed for future success.

Technology plays an increasingly important role in how businesses and industries are organized. With the critical convergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, hyper-connectivity, and changing consumer expectations, digital capabilities must drive how companies reinvent core business models. I contend that CIOs need to be catalysts for change within organizations, advocating for and leading profound shifts in business models and processes.

For many CIOs, this is an unfamiliar role, as it has typically been handled by executives in finance, marketing, and other areas. Of course, finding the capacity to make these changes is crucial. For CIOs accustomed to hands-on roles within their own verticals, it’s imperative to shed some responsibilities in order to be a company-wide change agent.

I suggest that CIOs consider the following questions in order to reinvent themselves:

  1. Where is the capacity? CIOs do not need to shoulder this burden themselves. In recent years, a number of new roles have emerged – chief data officer, chief privacy officer, chief digital officer – to whom responsibilities can be shifted. Delegating responsibilities allows the CIO to gain capacity.
  1. Are you providing the translation layer? Effective CIOs need to bridge the gap within their organizations between information and business applications. They play a crucial role in helping organizations see the extraordinary opportunity that digital offers and in identifying the risks of staying idle. In his recent book, Disrupt IT: A New Model for IT in the Digital Age, Ian Cox urges CIOs to become more social and spend more time working with stakeholders inside the business and external stakeholders within the ecosystem. I agree. CIOs need to have a deep understanding of the business in order to actuate change.
  1. Which business processes are in need of disruption? Growth will likely come from adopting new business processes and models, and the CIO needs to be at the forefront of the organization, guiding it into the future. The CIO should serve as a technical advisor to C-suite colleagues and board members, not just advising on systems implementations, but also weighing in on the revolutionary role technology can play in moving the company forward.
  1. How is IT organized? Is the department aligned in the best manner to innovate?
  1. Has your role changed dramatically in the past five years? If the answer is no, then figure out how you are you going to fill that gap. Given the current environment, it is very likely your competitors are moving quickly. There is no time to waste.

CIOs are already seeing the profound impact of taking on new roles.

At NetApp, CIO Cynthia Stoddard spends a third of her time interacting with sales people, meeting with top customers, and learning about the use of technology in the company. She has created an Innovation Lab for IT staff to bring in new technologies and, as she says, “play with them.” She asks staff to consider how these technologies can improve IT functions and shares the results with an internal strategy group.

IT is no longer a back-office function. For organizations to thrive in the digital economy, the CIO needs to do more than implement systems on time. In our current digital marketplace, CIOs must be strategic business partners whose expertise helps organizations forge new models. For many CIOs, this is a bold transformation requiring agility and development of new skill sets.

Kevin Cochrane, CMO of Jahia Solutions, says other C-suite executives must also be agile, but he sees CIOs playing a lead role in helping marketing units, for example, use business data to engage more effectively with customers. “The new paradigm for success is when the CIO, whose focus is on strategy, employee engagement, business process and technology, partners effectively with the CMO, whose focus is in making the brand promise more visible and exceptional through every customer touch point,” Cochrane recently told

The opportunity is ripe. The same transformations that are reshaping companies are also reshaping how CIOs position their organizations as leaders in this digital economy.

Learn more about digitizing IT and the need for IT leadership to drive the next phase of digital transformation.

Irfan Khan

About Irfan Khan

Irfan Khan is global head of sales for the Database & Data Management (DDM) business at SAP. He is responsible for the sales force driving SAP data platform solutions across six regions. Irfan is focused on key areas including cloud and on-premise solutions powered by the SAP HANA platform, SAP Cloud Platform, SAP databases, enterprise information management, and middleware offerings in support of SAP and non-SAP digital transformation, the Internet of Things, Big Data, and modern data-warehousing customer scenarios.