What does a chief information officer do?

The Evolution of the CIO

The CIO profile

Over a half century ago, we saw the emergence of data processing management, at first limited to a few in-house functions. As technology advanced, the data processing manager evolved into the Information Systems Officer (ISO) before becoming today’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) with board-level accountability. –All executives, including CIOs, require extensive business skills and change management expertise. In fact, many CIOs have MBAs as well five or more years of experience in IT management. Most have graduate or undergraduate degrees in computer science, software engineering, or information systems.

IT leaders have gained greater prominence, playing a more important strategic business role than a decade ago. To meet these new responsibilities, they must demonstrate in-depth knowledge of their industry and company processes. A skilled CIO ensures the productivity of staff with continual, seamless systems enhancements.

CIO responsibilities

CIOs oversee a company’s infrastructure, help initiate strategic planning and establish internal digital systems to advance a company’s goals and profitability. This includes determining how and by what means corporate data should be managed for maximum benefit to staff and a company’s ROI.

CIOs in larger, more complex organizations are often referred to as Chief Technology Officers (CTOs). Their more expanded responsibilities usually include initiating tech innovation, oversight of technology architecture, risk management, supplier management and external customer platform development.

A higher status, broader role has emerged

CIO management responsibilities have expanded beyond legacy systems to include brokering services with external service providers for their company’s different departments. Current responsibilities encompass in-house systems, cloud storage, as well as the use and development of mobile business applications—all of which are now integral to modern digital strategy.

To be effective, CIOs must cultivate open communications with other C-level executives and staff. By working closely with different departments, they can encourage them to select the best, most productive external digital services, ones that integrate well with other company systems.

The Chief Information Officer’s role has transformed. Along with C-level rank have come daunting new responsibilities encompassing both internal and external accountability. The CIO must have an in-depth understanding of both business and technology to remain credible in today’s business environment.

A new environment

In recent years, there’s been an exponential growth of cloud computing, resulting in company data increasingly being stored on remote, external drivers. The CIO must broker these external services, though without their previous veto power. Bottom line–the CIO is no longer the only technology gatekeeper. According to Forbes, by 2018 the average IT department will have the majority of their apps and platforms (60%) on the cloud.

Besides cloud computing, CIOs need to harness big data analytics, navigate mobile computing requirements and help create new collaboration platforms. CIOs understand that technology now drives systems. At a department level, it may seem that old legacy systems are still the way to go. However, in our new world of automation and augmented digital intelligence, machines are increasingly shaping our digital systems.

The CIO as business strategist

  • CIOs report they now spend about 30% of their time as a business strategist, but believe that should rise to 70%. They see their new strategic consulting role as critical to developing a high-performance, digital workplace. In addition, they want an expanded role in product development.
  • To fulfill their growing internal consulting role, the CIO must become familiar with the business processes of each business unit. Doing so makes it possible for them to win the influence they need to help ensure that department heads procure the best technology.
  • In the new model, IT operates as a movie studio, bringing together internal business units with other organizations which do most of the work. Leading such an organization requires a wide scope of knowledge and exemplary communication skills.
  • IT needs to ensure that all systems, whether remote or legacy –are fast, responsive, and user-friendly, operating within a set of general parameters.
  • Finally, when a business unit goes against CIO advice and purchases the wrong product, giving users metrics to track system efficiency can, in time, help them make a better choice.

Greatly expanded 21st-century responsibilities now require CIOs to focus on strategic management and cross-silo collaboration. One arguable setback–CIOs no longer have veto power over new external systems, so must persuade department heads to collaborate with them in evaluating their best vendor options.


1Establishing recognition as a revenue-driver: information Technology (IT) is still defined by over 50% of companies as a cost center, despite IT having been a revenue-driver for many years. As digital tech and internet connectivity have advanced, IT now generates revenue with systems that expose internal inefficiencies, improve employee productivity, increase customer satisfaction, and leverage big data analysis that improves decisions. In addition, a company needs a skilled IT staff to implement leading-edge ‘disruptive technologies’ before their competitors do. IT’s contributions to innovation are essential to maintaining a company’s competitive edge. This is why CIOs need to participate in a company’s overall strategic development. Even minimal investment in empowering IT innovation can yield significant dividends. Physically integrating IT with the rest of an organization gives it greater visibility and credibility as a revenue driver. Unfortunately, IT staffs are still often segregated from other employees in peripheral locations. This is a mistake given the need for cross-silo collaboration.

2Ensuring data security: security management now takes more than a third of a CIO’s time. Unless breakthrough tools are developed to counter growing cybercrime, this demand will inevitably increase in the future. Security challenges include an increasing complex cybersphere, securing ubiquitous mobile devices, complying with new regulations, and developing strategies to prevent state-sponsored denial of service attacks. –Some CIOs are still hesitant to put their data on the cloud, preferring to maintain internal control. However, in recent years cloud storage providers have provided better security than the majority of companies.

3Dealing with skills shortages: over half of CIOs report significant IT skills shortages. Deficits include big data analytics, business intelligence, security/risk management, applications development and mobile tech expertise. Tech.org estimates there are a half million IT jobs throughout the U.S. economy that are not being filled, with some sources projecting a deficit of one million open positions in the future. Rapid change creates a new tech landscape every two to five years—with newer skills always a priority. It follows that companies supporting continuing education have a definite advantage over those that don’t. Higher education is apparently falling short, with over 90% of organizations reporting that colleges and universities are not providing graduates with the tech skills they need to meet their needs.