Why today’s CIOs must look outside their organisation to succeed

To grasp the opportunities of the future, CIOs must look beyond their companies, placing customer needs at the heart of their efforts

“The doorway to success swings outwards, not inward,” says author and spiritualist Robin S Sharma. Should CIOs pay attention? 

That philosophical wisdom could certainly be seen in recent comments by Rashmi Kumar, HP senior vice president and CIO. She argues that CIOs must stop focusing inward and look outside to thrive in an increasingly technological and digital world. 

“Being CIOs, our purpose should be to put the customers first and not have a technology driver decision around how we implement that technology,” the Senior VP and CIO suggested to CXOTalk’s Michael Krigsman in September. “Don’t try to solve a technology problem. Try to solve a customer problem.” 

That’s a challenge even when you have the vast resources of HP. The global giant is evolving but relies on processes that have been in place for 30 years. 

“It’s not easy to take an 85-year-old company that has a very different mindset and our partners who are themselves busy in their own transformation, to pull them together to create that end-to-end, more efficient ecosystem” from a process and technology perspective, she says. 

Kumar’s advice – to concentrate on customer problems – delights Professor Simon Mosey, director of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Nottingham’s Business School. 

“Most companies have got innovation envy, so their chief information officer will constantly be hit over the head to ask: ‘Why can’t we be more like Amazon? Our customers expect delivery on demand, to be kept informed at all times and for every step in the process to be easy and convenient – if Amazon can do all that, why can’t we?’”

Famously, all Amazon’s innovations begin with a customer problem, Mosey notes. This means that “in a meeting of the high-ups, you have to set out on a page what problem a customer is having that you’re going to solve or why your idea would improve on what they’re doing already … that entrepreneurial approach is baked into their decision making at board level.”

A changing role

We tend to think of the CIO as an internally focused role, tasked with helping employees work in a slicker, more efficient manner, aided by IT. In the past, some CFOs perceived CIOs as spenders on IT infrastructures “that don’t seem to impact the bottom line positively, a negative dent with not much to show for it unless you understand the frameworks being bought”, says Lucy Kallin, managing director of the executive search agency Noventure.

This view has been revolutionised by the Covid-19 pandemic, Kallin says, when IT departments ensured their colleagues could work remotely. While most were seen as heroes, other companies thought “that’s what they should do as standard,” she adds. 

Chief human resources officers (CHROs) and other board members are now faced with a workforce that’s interested in hybrid working contracts. The market is more open than ever, enabling leaders to access skills beyond their geographical borders. In this context, “CIOs have to ensure that the solutions they implemented to solve a crisis have the legs to go the distance,” Kallin warns. 

Helena Nimmo is CIO at software company Endava. She thinks an increasingly outward-looking focus is a question of not just adapting to reality but embracing it.

“Technology has bled into every aspect of modern-day life and can have a hugely detrimental effect on a business’s ability to function if it fails,” she says. 

Technology’s crucial operational role means that more and more practical technologists are embedded in senior leadership teams, Nimmo adds, meaning “the value of technology to solve customer problems, not just internal ones, can be better realised. In my role as CIO, being a business leader – not just a tech leader – is essential to customer success.”

As Bill Gates has pointed out, “information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other.”

Shift in thinking 

Throughout the pandemic, organisations have scrambled to quickly create new digital properties, aiming to address business challenges like supply chain management, customer relationships and employee communications, Nimmo says. CIOs are now increasingly vital to ensure a competitive business edge and are responsible for a wider landscape. 

“The role should now be viewed as essential to customer success as it incorporates everything from operations to innovation to delivery, and most importantly, customer experience – all at the same time.” 

It’s increasingly hard to define what a conventional CIO does because the role no longer exists in the traditional sense. Nowadays CIO’s responsibilities depend on the sector and the size of the company. Technology is so pervasive and there are so many technology leaders and labels that it’s difficult to draw a box around any C-suite role

The board is an ever-expanding entity. Beginning with a CEO, companies soon found they needed a CFO, then a COO and then a CHRO. Now it feels like new roles emerge on a daily basis. However, the businesses built for future success will always put the end user at the centre of their decision making, as the giants of Silicon Valley have shown. 

Ultimately, the CIO’s approach will depend on their company’s needs. They must develop a full understanding of the end-to-end processes that serve their customers. For example, Kumar is focused on changing printing needs and how HP can facilitate these to remain relevant in the future. 

Data is now invaluable at a strategic business level, as well as internally.  For many CIOs, leading, managing and implementing a digital transformation strategy is now a fundamental part of the role. This means employing talented people who can be trusted to deal with internal challenges, enabling CIOs to focus on external stakeholders. Delegation is all important when offering the best support to customers. 

Diversity needs

C-Suites that fail to embrace diversity and inclusion can hold businesses back. The murder of George Floyd in the US in 2020 “catalysed a reckoning around racial injustice that led many corporate leaders to seek to evolve their organisations to meet today’s tremendous societal challenges”, noted the Harvard Business Review. 

A survey of the publication’s readers found that 65% of respondents did not think their organisations were diverse and inclusive. Its analysis showed that better diversity on the board improved decision making.

Anyone in a position of authority – not just CIOs – should look at the business from the perspective of “others who are usually underserved or not involved in the innovation decision making”, says Mosey. A first step is to think of things from a customer’s point of view, both in terms of existing customers and those the company is targeting. 

“With tech groups particularly, they tend to neglect the customers that don’t fit the profile of the senior management team, which is usually ‘pale, male and stale’,” Mosey argues. “So you’re not looking at characteristics of gender, race or disadvantaged communities who aren’t in a position of decision making – they don’t tend to be represented in innovation.” 

Companies need to gain insight into lived experience and develop systems and services to match. When the CIO thinks like an entrepreneur, they’re able to adapt before their businesses are disrupted by nimbler startups. That’s better than playing catch up or – even worse – finding they’re too late to react and the business is doomed. This means harnessing the capabilities that the best CIOs have long cultivated. 

“Put the training wheels on first,” Mosey says. Before asking customers about their problems, change the way you work within the organisation to ensure you can offer solutions. 

The first step is actually to reach out to employees to ask: ‘What problems have we got that we’re not solving?’” If your internal systems, procedures and decision-making become more representative of the workforce, you should find you become more representative of customers. 

Ultimately, the shift to successful outward thinking begins by looking inward.