Not just a technical wizard, the CIO is required for a wide variety of responsibilities. The most important of which focuses on business strategy. They have to be able to align the innovation required to constantly drive a business with the very metrics that help its senior leadership team define its success. No longer confined to the back office alongside servers, the CIO is seen as the lynchpin between transformation and real growth. Does that still make them the CIO?
Milind Wagle, CIO, Equinix; Dax Grant, CIO, HSBC; Charlotte Baldwin; CDTO, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Paul Coby, CIO, Johnson Matthey; Ian Cohen, Chief Product and Information Officer, Acacium Group, speak on this highly topical debate to understand how a business and technology leader todays to capitalize on digital technologies. Peter Stojanovic, Editor of HotTopics.ht, moderated.
Who is a modern-day CIO?
To begin, the technology leaders sought to qualify who a modern-day CIO is and what they represent. Ian Cohen started the debate on a lighthearted note.
“In the past I’ve described what I do as part UN peacekeeper, part marriage guidance counsellor, part mediator and occasionally, I get to do some technology—and I still believe that to be true!
“But a CIO is whatever the business needs them to be,” he continued. “Some require product-focused leaders, whilst others want more traditional CIOs who are infrastructure-led, although they are diminishing quite rapidly. Where are we going? I think CIOs are becoming increasingly customer-obsessed.”
Cohen has been a CIO, CTO and Chief Product Officer, including for household names such as Addison Lee, so he himself as acquired a range of titles for what he believes are similar roles. As he put it, “Every role I have had has been to use technology to drive my business forward.”
Charlotte Baldwin expanded upon Ian’s thoughts with her own experiences.
“We’re starting to see a trend towards bringing together core technologies of an organization with the client-facing transformation agenda, alongside that product piece,” she explained. “I think of myself as a chief problem solver; sometimes technology solves the problem and other times it’s a process efficiency or a capability gap.”
The goal for today’s CIO, both Cohen and Baldwin agreed, was to understand the business is trying to achieve and recognizing how technology can solve that problem, if technology is the answer, of course. They also highlighted the business-centric approach that CIOs are developing, which is a great opportunity for these technology leaders to expand their already impressive remits.
Later on in the debate, Milind Wagle, Equinix’s CIO based in California, US, used these thoughts to highlight the four main priorities for tomorrow’s CIO, based on numerous conversations he has had with peers across Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
The first priority he stated was centered around growth.
“Identifying opportunities to influence the operational line and unlock opportunities in products and services, and increase revenue by optimizing existing components,” he stated.
This is especially important because the CEO and CFO now require a transparent business case behind every spend and strategy—even if it does help with scaling, which he comes to next.
“Scale is the second priority. At Equinix we have a saying: bend the cost curve. We ask ourselves to ensure the bottom line does not grow at the same trajectory as the top line, and we look to manage this by automation, for example.”
Experience (customer and employee) is the third priority, Wagle then explained, and finally, fourth, was actionable intelligence, the concept on which any strategic decision needs to be made with the best data possible.
Across these four priorities one thing becomes clear: CIOs will need to work closely with nearly every part of the C-Suite and leadership teams to have that panoramic view of the business. Actionable intelligence will need close collaboration with the data and insights team, for example, growth, with the product, innovation and finance teams. In this scenario, the CIO really does become the lynchpin of the business.
Technology and wellness
The debate wasn’t all business and technology, however. One of the key trends discussed was empathetic leadership and its impact on culture and innovation, as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic and working from home. Both Paul Coby of Johnson Matthey and Dax Grant of HSBC shared their view on this positive trend.
“What we’ve tried to do is showcase the need to empower people in their personal lives,” said Coby. “The experience of employees has been dramatically different, depending on where you work and live in the world, and as a global organization, we’ve pulled back from the 9-5 experience to a ‘just get the job done’ and be transparent about what you can and can’t do so the team can chip in.
“After all,” he concluded, “isn’t that a more decent way to behave?”
Over at HSBC, the roundtable heard, things were equally frank, yet focused on wellness as a topic rather than output.
“Technologies, business relationships, strategy, they’re all important,” said Grant, “but we’ve made wellness get an equal share of voice so the pace of innovation is set correctly and it becomes a team sport.”
The “pace of innovation” comment is particularly important to note here. Not only are CIOs and other business leaders grappling with the tension between productivity, work and wellness, but questioning how this balance remains as different regions exit lockdowns. Hybrid working will set its own challenges and, given the importance of CIOs disclosed in the debate, it will be vital to solve them quickly.
As Paul Coby adeptly phrased it: “CIOs need to keep the humanity, respect and flexibility of work going as much as possible. But what will this new abnormal mean how we lead and innovate? That’s the challenge we face.”
This roundtable is in partnership with Equinix.