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How CIOs can build on the pandemic’s momentum

The pandemic has shown how crucial the chief information officer is; now it’s time to keep the momentum going through seamless customer journeys and delivering growth

The chief information officer (CIO) has been misconceived by too many companies as the person in charge of making sure the computers keep working. The pandemic has changed that.

After a year when working from home has become the norm, the CIO and a company’s IT team have been the cavalry charging over the hill to ensure businesses could operate. The task for CIOs now is to keep up that momentum and not just go back to being the person who makes sure laptops can “talk” to printers. 

Robert Teagle, CIO at car auction firm BCA, which also operates WeBuyAnyCar and Cinch, believes this is best achieved by harnessing the positive new light the role is seen in and aligning the department with future growth plans. 

“It’s been like a snowball; the move to digital was always moving along slowly and then the pandemic meant it suddenly raced down the hill,” he says. “We can’t keep it going at that pace for much longer, but we do need to keep it going. We do need to help companies digitally transform, so the CIO role, and the team they lead, has to show it is absolutely crucial to growth.”

Teagle talks about pace from a qualified vantage point. A year ago the split between digital and face-to-face auction sales was 70-30, in favour of auctions. Within a year, this had to shift to 100 per cent digital sales. When lockdown is finished, Teagle sees a clear role in keeping the digital process moving at pace by removing remaining barriers. At the moment he has ensured the BCA part of the process is digital, the next project is to make sure the paperwork on the selling and the buying side follows suit so the entire process can run more smoothly.

Offering a seamless customer experience

Removing these barriers in the customer journey is where CIOs should be looking very closely to make a difference, according to Louise Bunting, CIO at datacentre operator Yondr Group. In her experience, even when systems are digitalised, too many companies have invested in applications that are suited to a particular task, but are not integrated within the wider business. While they might work, they do so in isolation, rather than as a seamless journey for customers.

To show the true worth of the role, she believes CIOs need to stop thinking about an application for every process they need to facilitate. Instead, they need to consider how they can remove a series of internal operational steps and offer a smooth customer journey. 

“We have to break down the silos created by rows of applications that each perform a specific task,” she says. “CIOs need to join up the processes at their business so customers get a seamless journey. Interacting with companies has to be intuitive. True digital transformation means a great experience with as few touchpoints as possible.”

To get to this position, Bunting believes CIOs need to change how they are perceived in their organisation and to do that they need to change their own attitudes first. 

“We have to stop being seen as the department that says ‘no’ too often or ‘that’s too difficult’,” she suggests. “We have to build trust by saying something’s challenging, but we’ll get it cracked if we work with the owner of the issue and the operation teams. It’s a two-way process. We have to be proactive and build that trust if we’re to raise the profile of the CIO.” 

Aligning with growth plans

For CIOs looking to retain their hero status, the pandemic has done more than show the value of digital transformation in keeping companies operational. It has also offered up some warning signs for companies as they build for a future when lockdown rules are removed. 

Those pushing for change now have examples of what happens to businesses that are not ready to trade digitally and Lyn Grobler, CIO at insurance company Howden Group, believes they should not be afraid to reference them.

“If you need an example of how important digital transformation is, you just need to think how Topshop didn’t want to put the necessary investment into digital to ‘do an ASOS’ and then think about who ended up being in a position to buy them,” she says. 

Her advice is for CIOs to tap into this concern of what happens to businesses that do not commit to transformation and then work through the chief executive, wherever possible, to align their vision of growth with what digital can offer.  This gets round the age-old problem of the role being defined more by whom it reports to than what it can achieve.

“If you’re a CIO reporting to the chief operating officer, you’ll only have conversations about operations and if you’re reporting to the chief financial officer, you’re only ever going to be asked to reduce costs,” she says. “The trick is to get in front of the chief executive and see what they want to achieve to grow the business. You have to be entrepreneurial and see how you can proactively fit in and deliver that growth.”

Going beyond a digital coat of paint

This tactic of being proactive rather than reactive, looking for ways to make a company more agile and make customer journeys smoother is how Arthur Hu, CIO of tech company Lenovo, believes the role will rise in prominence. 

He predicts many organisations are going to be more receptive to digital transformation proposals as markets emerge from lockdown. This is rooted, he believes, in too many businesses realising the “we still have more time, we still have more runway” attitude did not work out well when the pandemic struck. 

The good news for any CIO is many C-suites will now realise their culture has to change to embrace digital because, as they have found out, it is the best way to prepare for an uncertain future. The positive developments come with a warning, though, for any executives not committed to going “all in” on fundamental change. 

“You can’t slap a coat of paint on something and call it transformation,” he says. “The CIO has to be the integrator for customer experience; you need to use data across the whole experience to make it seamless and interactive. You also have to build an architecture that can adapt because, as we’ve seen this past year, huge change can happen at any time and you need to be able to adapt.”

Building teams around the CIO

For companies that want to streamline their customer experience, the advice from BCA’s Teagle is that a successful CIO needs to build the right team around them. For him, this does not mean looking to recruit solely from people already in the sector, but to bring in new ideas from other industries. 

“We want to get away from a standard ‘vanilla’ experience to offer something with the convenience and fun of buying something on Amazon or booking a holiday online,” he says. “We have retail and travel IT experts onboard because they’re going to help us think differently. When you think about it, picking up a car is just like click and collect at a shop, so we’re building a team with expertise in these areas.”

It is clear that keeping up the momentum for the CIO is not just about technology. It will start with aligning the role with a company’s growth plans, while offering seamless journeys to the customers it aims to attract. It also involves getting the right people in place who can bring new ideas to help support the CIO role and maintain its current high-profile status.