The leadership of an organization, often referred to as the “C-Suite”, frequently provides the blueprint for the culture of that organization. Personality traits of the CEO, whether aggressive, or conservative, or visionary, or calculated, are reflected in his or her direct reports and hires, and those characteristics typically ripple across an enterprise. This often sets an unspoken tone for how an organization operates and maneuvers in its respective marketplace or industry relative to peers and competitors.
Traditional C-Suite structures cover standard functional towers under the CEO, including Chief Financial Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Chief Marketing Officers, and more. Larger organizations get more granular and specialized in their C-Suites, with Risk, Strategy, Innovation, Research, Engineering, and Legal Officers, amongst others. Information Technology, once traditionally under the purview of operations and a back-office “keep-the-lights-on” kind of function, has become increasingly critical over the past few decades, and IT Directors have given way to Chief Information Officers even in smaller enterprises.
But how big is the CIO’s voice at the C-Suite table, actually?
The IT C-Suite
The CIO is the bridge between technology and business operations. Depending on the organization and industry, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) may report to the CIO or may be a peer. The CTO is typically “outward-facing” with regards to technology, including being the guiding voice for engineering and R&D functions that create and deploy customer-implemented technology solutions, whereas the CIO is typically more focused on internal technology and information/data operations. A newer, more specialized IT C-Suite role is that of the chief data officer (CDO). The CDO studies the data and sifts through numbers to find new opportunities for the organization. The data could include social media, customer online behavior, Internet of Things packets, as well as disparate and structured data.
So how does the IT functional leadership fit into overall organizational strategy? Surprisingly, the decades-old attitude towards business technology is still quite common, and many companies only realize that the “IT as a necessary cost center” afterthought attitude was a tactical mistake after their competitors who adopted “IT as a distinct competitive advantage” zoom past them in the marketplace.
The global pandemic changed the business landscape, thrusting the C-Suite into unfamiliar territory in many organizations. The virus has put organizations’ financial health and technological preparedness to a sink-or-swim test, and countless have fallen by the wayside (and continue to do so). In the United States, for example, almost 7.5 million businesses are in danger of closing shop forever due to COVID-19. The figure was based on the survey by Main Street America, which counts 1,800 business organizations and individuals as members.
While businesses are naturally battered and bruised, COVID-19 has also presented an opportunity for organizations to evolve, by laying bare the previously covered gaps in processes, systems, and business structures. Some of the economic pain in 2020 can be traced directly to the ability of organizations to make the shift to virtual work in businesses and industries where its even possible. Manufacturing and many other sectors don’t have the luxury of working remotely. Their pain stems from the precautionary steps required to keep employees and required interactions safe and secure as they attempt to maintain operational and production viability.
How clear was an organization’s technology roadmap and implementation? How sound was its infrastructure model? Can a suddenly remote employee perform his/her job duties in a virtual environment, with access to all of the tools, systems, and data that were available in an office cubicle? How digitized are company data and processes? These measures and gaps become painfully obvious, very quickly, when the answer is “not very”.
Leading the Transformation and Innovation
According to the 2018 Gartner report, however, the CIO is no longer expected to focus solely on the IT issues. They should also assume responsibilities outside of their traditional field of expertise. Instead of being just a “delivery executive,” they will transform into a “business executive.”
The 2018 report might as well be talking about the scenario post-COVID. More than ever, the chief information officer will find ways to innovate and transform the organization under the new normal. They will take the front seat in some instances and steer the business forward, rather than staying in the background of the operations.
By the same token, the rest of the C-Suite must also be willing to listen. Understandably, being one of the apex voices in the organization means that other functional leaders are accustomed to being in control. These officers are being asked to cede some measure of that control to allow IT to effectively guide and navigate the unfamiliar landscape. The impact of being technologically unprepared for massive business and economic disruptions (like, say, a pandemic) is now clear to the rest of the C-Suite. Many of these officers are having to swallow a tough pill in the form of CIO refrains like “Do you understand now why I said it was important that implement X, Y, and Z last year, and what could happen if we didn’t?”
Benefits of Inviting IT to the Table Post-COVID
- Not Flying Blind – It’s become painfully obvious that traditional methods and modes of the IT function do not work as well as hoped when crises hit, as shown by the number of businesses severely impacted by the pandemic. The good news is that the rate of recovery is not the same. Some countries like Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and New Zealand have already opened up their economies. As a result, they are providing a workable digital map for your business to use as guidelines. The data will answer the following key questions:
- What are the companies in those countries doing to cope with the new normal and make sure they thrive?
- What are the pitfalls they encountered that you could possibly avoid?
- How are they able to get back their customers who are also reeling from fear due to the virus?
Consumers are already expecting brands to show a greater sense of social responsibility, as seen in sports leagues across Asia. Companies and brands will start looking for more cause-based opportunities to support their countries and communities. IT and network technology are key enablers in allowing companies to meet the social demands of consumers.
- More focused strategy — Without an empowered CIO in the suite, the IT department answers to either the CMO, CFO, or the COO, or whomever happens to need its services. Without a voice on the board, they are relegated to being merely a delivery channel in support of a business strategy that was decided without their input. In a sense, the data is used to fit the narrative, even if the numbers show that the original strategy was flawed in the first place. By giving IT a seat at the C-Suite table, they can help craft a more focused and proactive strategy that will better prepare an organization for its “normal” run-state marketplace competitiveness, crisis management, and mass disruptions. If it isn’t already, technology HAS to become an integral and integrated part of an organization’s overall strategy. The potential enablement that new technologies can provide will take companies in new directions, markets, and verticals previously thought unattainable.
- Mitigating the risks — In all ventures, businesses must be able to identify and mitigate risks to increase chances of success and manage costs. Traditionally, however, IT departments have been tasked with basic IT operational functionality—”make sure my email works and that I can access my applications, and I’m generally happy”. IT is also expected to follow basic security protocols to protect company data and network viability, as well as other functions that average users don’t see or typically concern themselves with. But having a comprehensive IT strategy and roadmap captures risks and risk plans, both internal and external, and prepares an organization to deal with threats and disruptions when they occur with minimal operational disruption.
- Unfiltered voice — When IT does not have an effective voice in the C-Suite, CEOs often receive skewed, diluted, and sometimes even corrupted interpretations of actionable data inputs. The downriver impacts on IT strategy and infrastructure viability will be covered up and obfuscated…until they’re not, which is the situation thousands of businesses currently find themselves in. Let the IT function provide the competent technology guidance that they’re hired to do. It could mean the difference between seamlessly shifting operational modes, and having operations grind to a standstill.
COVID-19 changed the corporate landscape of the world’s economies. IT should have a leading role not only in the current environment of survival mode, but in go-forward operations and strategic planning. The pandemic presents an unplanned opportunity for organizations to revamp their priorities and strategies. Quality technology mapping, implementation, and management from your IT team and leadership can clarify the path forward for companies lost in a global pandemic wilderness…if you listen to them.