The binary role of today’s CIO – businesses that get it (and those that don’t!)

“Remember when the CIO bought ‘tin’ and enabled functions to do their stuff better? Those days are gone,” – so says Nigel Lemmon, former global CTO at Nando’s and ex-CIO at SABMiller.

“If there’s been one big change over the course of my 25 year career, it’s been the progressive movement away from this – from a technology function focused internally on the business of the business, to being much more of the enabler to the whole business focused on value creation, not solely cost reduction.”

Of course, it’s still the case that not all CIOs have the CEO’s ear (CIO Dive finds a third of businesses still don’t recognise IT as a value creator, but according to Lemmon when speaking to Eton Bridge Partners about how the CIO role is evolving, this is the goal all aspiring CIOs (and CEO’s) should strive for.

“Sure, there’s cyber security, data analytics, new systems and operations – but these are largely business as usual now” explains the former RAF Regiment officer, who first got into IT by moving into manufacturing and production management in the days of client/ server. “What the CIO of 2020 and beyond really needs to think of him or herself now is being the champion of the business’ digital capability.”

“Understanding the value technology can unlock, rather than the technology itself is the crucial change of mindset I understood early,” he says. “Before, technology was actually quite cumbersome and there were good reasons to be fixated with making it work. Now, it’s so much easier to deploy and integrate. So, the CIO skillsets needed are around the contribution technology and data can make to a successful strategy. The start-point should always be – what is the business outcome, and how can we (IT) enable this to create customer value.”

Doing a full-time MBA at Cranfield – a process Lemmon describes as the ‘best development he ever undertook’ – solidified this view further. “The importance of understanding the context of the business you’re in cannot be overstated enough,” he argues.

“Looking back now, it’s clear to me what I should have done earlier to advance my future CIO credentials: worry less about the route to the top – for that will come – but concentrate instead on how you make people feel. That’s what colleagues, leaders or stakeholders remember most, and if you’re not coming to them with an opinion about making the business better, you won’t get the credibility or the airtime you feel you deserve.” 

Strangely, Lemmon says he is still surprised by how little advancement has actually been made in “Digitisation vs Digitalisation”. Companies still make the same mistakes,” he observes. “What I really think gets misunderstood still is the fact that so often, it’s real change in the organisation and its leadership that’s really needed – far more than change in the technology. But often, the technology is seen as the saviour. It’s why some CIOs are still positioned, and expected to manage the technology estate, but what the best ones are really focusing on is: ‘what is the change of state in the organisational capabilities that we want technology to help achieve?’ It’s a subtle, but oh such a different way of thinking and acting.”

Associated with this, Lemmon advises that the implementation of technology should ‘not’ ever be the major part of any business change. “When you’re talking about change – or ‘business transformation’ as it is more grandly called now – the only way it truly succeeds is when the executive leadership team have communicated a clear vision of what the change is designed to bring about, how the technology will impact customers and employees, and ultimately what the value is they want to create -and why.” He adds: “That’s the real essence of getting change done, successful change cannot be delegated!”

But enough looking back – what will the future CIO role involve, and what outlook (positive or negative) will they gaze upon? Here, Lemmon is actually very optimistic. “AI, data insights, voice – the opportunities for gaining customers and redefining the way we do business is just phenomenal,” he says. “The opportunity is very much there if existing and future CIOs are comfortable with operating and leading change, and there are CEO’s who understand that a CIO on the leadership team is critical (this is the 21st Century after all!).

It’s the case that the bigger challenge is finding organisations that understand this outlook – ones who have looked over the metaphorical hill of future success and have seen what’s there on the other side. The behaviours and organisations of today will not likely be the successful ones of tomorrow; so what does your future organisation look like?”  More organisations will – he insists – morph into platform-based models, not just as the composition of boards change, but because “the mood music will get clearer (about the value of the CIO) and what is really needed for successes in today’s digital business environment.”

Jean-Pierre Green

Partner
Executive Search
Business Transformation & Technology


Jean-Pierre Green specialises in providing executive search solutions for the business transformation and IT leadership market. Clients include entrepreneurial SMEs through to large multinational organisations going through people, process and systems change.