Do CIOs have a responsibility for company culture?

Most CIOs who’ve led their firms through digital transformations have focused on the commercial imperatives so far, but a further challenge is beckoning: can they become cultural change agents too?


The task of building and reinforcing a company’s culture and values has traditionally been the domain of the CEO, who would work with the HR function to ensure that these are embodied in the firm’s people management policies, processes and systems. But the CIO is becoming increasingly important in this respect too, given the massive cultural impact of tech-enabled remote working, among other digital transformations, on the workforce.

With many office workers spending less time together at head office as their companies adopt hybrid working patterns, technology is becoming a bigger part of the employee experience. A digital-first culture seems to be emerging in many cases. 

Of the 500-plus CIOs polled in an international survey by Adobe and Fortune in April last year, 89% saw themselves as change agents who were helping to improve the culture of their organisation. To what extent are they achieving this? 

Most CIOs have attained their position because they’ve focused the considerable technical expertise they’ve accumulated on strategies and systems that support the attainment of commercial, rather than cultural, goals. So it could be argued that, while CIOs are clearly agents of change, the responsibility for developing a culture that will optimise employee engagement should fall to a senior executive whose sole focus is on people.

But Helena Nimmo, CIO at software firm Endava, argues that CIOs of firms that have embraced hybrid working are finding themselves increasingly accountable for maintaining their company’s culture. This is because they are responsible for the tech that’s enabling employees to work at any location and remain connected with each other, just as if they were all still sitting together in the same building.

“In the new hybrid working era, CIOs must balance the physical and the virtual by implementing technology that improves employees’ satisfaction, as well as enabling their work,” she says. “This is a chance for CIOs to reimagine the relationship between people and technology by taking a user-centric approach to the tech.” 

Nimmo adds that they need to consider cultural factors across the whole organisation, as employees in different functions may not necessarily view hybrid working in the same way. “To become true leaders in the digital workplace and meet the diversity of needs across their organisations, CIOs need to put themselves in all of their tech users’ shoes and take on a community representative role,” she says.

Ensuring that employees feel well aligned with their organisation’s culture is crucial in talent retention, according to a new study published by OC Tanner, a provider of employee recognition programmes. Its research has found that, when people feel disconnected from their workplace, culture and purpose, the likelihood that they will produce great work falls by 90%. They are 11 times more likely than the average employee to suffer burnout and six times more likely to quit within three years. 

CIOs need to put themselves in all of their tech users’ shoes and take on a community representative role

The concept of hybrid working is nothing new, of course. Many companies have operated successfully for years with employees mixing home and office working without experiencing unacceptable levels of cultural disengagement. But the pandemic-driven fast-tracking of some organisations’ digital transformations over the past two years has left their employees needing more support in adapting to the new tools and systems that have been thrust upon them. 

There can also be a lack of cohesion between the HR and IT functions. Companies are becoming increasingly reliant on the collection and analysis of real-time data to better understand how their staff are coping with the digital transition. This trend has brought the contributions of both HR and IT to the fore. Despite this, a 2021 survey by Nexthink, a specialist in digital employee engagement, found that almost half (48%) of the HR leaders it polled admitted either that they didn’t work well with their equivalents in the IT function or that they weren’t sure whether they did or not.

Nexthink’s chief people officer, Meg Donovan, believes that CIOs should work more closely with HR to collect feedback from staff, along with hard data on the performance of employees’ devices, applications and networks to identify any sources of frustration. 

“They can then progress towards their digital experience goals, from improving employees’ perceptions of the company’s technology to shifting users to a new service,” she says.

The CIO has historically focused on ensuring that their organisation’s technology remains fit for purpose, so that the business can feel confident that its people will always have the right tools to do their jobs properly. But the acceleration of the fourth industrial revolution during the Covid crisis is giving CIOs opportunities to help encourage knowledge-sharing, improve collaboration and cultivate a greater sense of community. They have the chance to become genuine agents of positive change.

Jonathan Morris, co-founder and managing partner of executive search firm TritonExec, believes that CIOs can go even further than that. They are well placed to become “evangelists” in their companies, he says, by cultivating a consumer-grade employee experience with the help of new tech that’s aligned with a digital-first workplace culture. 

The impact that CIOs can have on employee engagement is “tremendous, as they can drive positive cultures by bringing in tools, technologies and systems that are foundational in human-centric design”, Morris says. “No employee wants to feel like they exist on an island. The CIO’s role is to shape their experience.”

He also sees CIOs as pivotal to the success of companies in managing talent at senior level. Such employees have “little to no tolerance for outdated technology, mindsets and processes. Attracting and retaining them means creating environments where they can thrive. It’s essential to provide them with efficient systems and collaboration capabilities that don’t handcuff them,” Morris says. “The CIO is therefore on the hook to, at the very least, enable the kind of culture expected by their company’s top talent.”