How Covid elevated the role of the CIO

Members of the senior executive team are now engaging with IT leaders and requesting their strategic input like never before


The shift to hybrid working during the pandemic has highlighted the importance of Chief Information Officers (CIOs), with technology more crucial than ever in enabling operations. 

CIOs have always collaborated closely with senior executives and other managers. However, Covid-19 has elevated the role of IT leaders. The rapid shift to remote working in the early days of lockdown accelerated technology adoption by around three years, says Chris White, head of consultancy at IT consultancy QuoStar. It also “highlighted the need to have the right person in the right role, and to bring them into the heart of the business”. This was particularly true of those organisations that had a “CIO in name only, who wasn’t acting as a strategic business leader”.

Veronica Millan, global CIO of marketing communications network MullenLowe Group, which has 90 agencies in 65 markets around the world, agrees. “The pandemic showed everyone that the CIO and their team are one of the most critical in the organisation,” she says. “If they’d made the right decisions pre-pandemic, the business was able to transition smoothly into remote working, but if not they struggled.” 

Those who got it right demonstrated the “value of a CIO with the vision to implement a strategy based on resiliency, and just how critical the role is to operations”, Millan adds. If it wasn’t happening already, today’s CIOs report into the CEO or COO.

A strategic turn

As a result of this shift, senior executives are now “properly reaching out” to CIOs in a way that was not necessarily the case before, when the situation was often more about IT leaders “struggling to gain traction”, says White.

“It’s opened up a conversation about how technology can be used more effectively in the business, which means the discussion is becoming more strategic,” he explains. “In many instances, we’re moving from how CIOs can provide the necessary infrastructure to how the organisation can make better use of technology for business success.”

The pandemic showed everyone that the CIO and their team are one of the most critical in the organisation

Executives at wealth and investment management services firm SEI, for example, now have a clearer understanding of the impact technology can have both externally and internally, says CIO Ryan Hicke.

While technology was in the past mainly considered an “enabler to drive new ideas, products and solutions”, the pandemic “exposed and magnified how important the organisation’s tech strategy is not just to business development and revenue generation, but also to the effectiveness of the workforce”. As a result, Hicke is now working “closer than ever with HR and business heads” to “understand what teams need” and how to make them “more productive and effective”.

Empowering collaboration

This collaboration, which previously tended to be informal at SEI, has been facilitated by the creation of a standing committee, which met weekly when it was first created in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic but now meets fortnightly. 

The committee consists of about 15 members, including a mix of business unit heads and executives with global responsibility, who discuss “the most effective way to manage the workforce”, including a proposed move to hybrid working as the situation allows in the US and Europe. Any recommendations for action are then sent for approval to the executive committee, on which Hicke also sits.

In future I don’t think there’ll be a separation between the CIO and COO – they’ll have the same job title, or a different, newly created one

MullenLowe Group has taken a similar approach to ensuring more effective communication. Since the pandemic struck, Millan has taken part in weekly meetings with about 20 HR and operations leaders, which include the CEOs of large or regional groups of agencies, to discuss everything from what is happening on the ground to requirements, policies and future vision.

“When we started having our ‘Covid calls’ we thought they’d just last for a couple of weeks, but they’ve been so beneficial we’ve kept them going to discuss issues around the return to the office and hybrid working,” she says. “There’s so much useful input and feedback on what’s happening around the world that I can use in building a strategy, which my teams then implement at a local level.”

Another key benefit of this approach is that both HR and operations executives now understand and are much more “invested and interested” in the idea of creating a “continual learning culture” around technical skills development, Millan adds.

The future of the CIO

The widespread shift to hybrid working has also clarified just how broad-based and integral the CIO’s role actually is.

“In contrast to HR leaders, who focus on people, and marketing leaders, who focus on marketing, CIOs are able to see across, and are involved in, all parts of the business,” says White. “So they have a huge part to play in helping to develop strategy across the business, which is also where technology comes in – to enable that strategy to happen.”

This means that as growing numbers of organisations embrace digital and business change, the “huge wealth of expertise in transformation, innovation and driving efficiencies” developed by the majority of CIOs over a considerable period has increasingly started coming into its own, enabling them to “help shape the future”, White adds.

Millan agrees that most CIOs know exactly how the company operates, not least because it’s vital to understand how everyone uses technology. 

“In future I don’t think there’ll be a separation between the CIO and COO – they’ll have the same job title, or a different, newly created one. So I think we’ll see the CIO is really the COO in disguise - and that will be the future of the CIO,” she concludes.