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7 traits of digital-savvy CIOs

7 traits of digital-savvy CIOs

Just as employees are upskilling in the latest tech, so too should CIOs, whose ongoing digital skills acquisition can greatly impact their organisations and their careers.

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Much has been made of CIOs’ need for business and leadership skills. To be truly transformational leaders, today’s CIOs must be adept at helming high-performing teams, guided by a keen understanding of how to co-create value with business colleagues.

But technical skills, often relegated to the second tier of an IT leader’s necessary skill set, can give CIOs a level of digital dexterity that will help advance not only their organisation’s digital initiatives but also their own careers.

“CIOs must own their role evolution and shape and execute new actions throughout digitalisation — evangelist, orchestration and foundations engineering,’’ wrote Gartner in the 2021 report “Executive Essentials: Evolve Your Role as CIO.”

Yet, only 47 per cent of CTOs and 45 per cent of CIOs are digitally-savvy, according to the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) at the MIT Sloan School of Management. These IT leaders stunt both their organisations’ outlooks and their own prospects for advancement, as a tech know-how deficit on company boards means CIOs with digital skills are now more likely to earn a seat in the boardroom.

So, just as employees are being up-skilled in technologies to advance their careers, CIOs should, too.

“There’s an innate nature of the CIO to always be thirsty for knowledge and be learning,’’ says Craig Richardville, chief digital and information officer at Intermountain Healthcare. “For many of us, including myself, we don’t consider ourselves experts but students who can learn and turn around and teach others.”

IT leaders and industry experts weigh in on what differentiates today’s digital-savvy CIOs from the pack, as well as the tactics they employ to keep current on technical skills — paving the way for future success.

They delve into analytics and AI

Today’s workers need to understand how to glean insights from a data platform in a self-serve way, says Evan Huston, chief digital officer at Saatva, a luxury mattress and bedding company. 

“Our approach to data engineering is to enable end users to build their own dashboards off of clean data. Two specific skills I’ve had to learn to then help others are creating dashboards in our BI tool and becoming more sophisticated with Google Analytics.”

Kim Huffman, CIO of TripActions, a business travel management, corporate card, and expense management company, admits that earlier in her career she was “closer to the technology than I am now.” But Huffman says she tries to stay current, particularly in emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning.

Skills like cloud and data analytics “are examples [of] where CIOs/IT leaders must excel and demonstrate their ability to execute these strategies in alignment with business needs,’’ says Len Peters, faculty director of the CIO Senior Executive Program at New York University, who most recently took a data science certification course in AI at MIT.

They cement some cybersecurity knowledge

It behooves CIOs to not assume cyber security is the sole purview of the CISO. COVID has provoked an increase in cyber threats and introduced new challenges in how people work by nature of being fully remote, says Saatva’s Huston.

“Years ago, having a password with numbers in it was considered secure but the past few years, in particular, have brought about the need for employees to understand not only two-factor authentication but how to use password managers and authenticator apps in order to protect systems and data,” Huston says.

CIOs must keep their security knowledge up with the times in this rapidly evolving landscape to implement and advocate for updated best practices across the organisation, he says.

TripActions’ Huffman believes it is important for CIOs to better understand how endpoints interact and to learn about extended detection and response (XDR) tools. She is particularly interested in this area “because we’re not going to be able to match the rapid acceleration [of threats] with humans.” 

That makes it critical to utilise machine learning and AI, collectively share security information across vendors and companies, and develop models for detection and response, she says.

They learn from vendors and peers

In addition to attending conferences and programs, CIOs should spend time with vendors. “Cut through the sales talk to understand their solutions and roadmaps,’’ says Peters, who is also a member of the board of advisors at the CIOInstitute.

“As a CIO, having a vendor management function can help you dig through vendor offerings and work with your enterprise architects to build your own roadmaps,” he says.

Vendors can share a lot of knowledge on new technologies through their conferences, says Huffman, who also does a lot of leadership networking to gain insights on new tech.

Intermountain’s Richardville goes beyond his healthcare network to connect with people from industries “I feel that are more advanced in their digital initiatives than healthcare, that have truly applied it and seen success,’’ he says, such as IT leaders in banking and retail. Doing so has helped Richardville better understand how they have “transitioned from a high labor workforce to automating work internally.’’

Claire Rutkowski, senior vice president and CIO of Bentley Systems, an infrastructure engineering software company, says they offer digital twins, which “requires a change in mindset.” 

As CIO, “you have to be able to sell that story and understand that story and be able to show the advantages of using that technology,’’ she says. “Do I have to know digital twins inside out? No. I just know how it will further the company’s goals and outcomes.”

Rutkowski says she has “a large network of peers and experts in the tech arena,” so when she needs to hone skills in machine learning and automation, “I have plenty of people I can go to.’’

They immerse themselves in research

CIOs should also immerse themselves in emerging technology research by keeping up on the latest research blogs and reports, and by attending conferences, observes Tori Paulman, senior director analyst at Gartner. “Every moment, every touchpoint a CIO has with emerging technologies can be the education they need — if they’re open-minded.”

But Paulman advises IT leaders to avoid a scattershot approach, instead homing in on how potential difference-making technologies can impact their business. 

“If they come back from a conference with five new technologies to throw at their organisation, my opinion is that won’t lead to success,’’ Paulman says, adding that digital savviness is about understanding technology and how it applies to their needs.

“We see a lot of CIOs learn about the technology, but they don’t take the time to learn about the applicability or take the time to take other people along with them,’’ Paulman says. “So it’s lost time.”

They invest in talent

CIOs come in many different forms, Peters says, and good CIOs will hire strong teams to ensure they have the right mix of skills to cover all the necessary functions. 

“With digital transformation being such a high priority, the real key takeaway is that business skills are a must; tech skills can be hired,” he says, adding that “the small caveat is the CIO must still be able to translate the tech solutions into business benefits.”

Bentley Systems’ Rutkowski makes no bones about the fact that she is “not a deep technologist.’’ She has, however, been gaining more knowledge about how to apply machine learning to automated workflows, she says, so “I can deliver more efficiencies to Bentley’s systems by doing that.”

But for the most part, to be more digital-savvy, Rutkowski leans on her team.

“I feel a CIO is very much like a conductor of an orchestra. Technology is changing so quickly … there is no way any one person can keep up with everything,’’ she explains. “For me, it’s about having the right people on the team.”

Gartner’s Paulman also sees the digital-savvy CIO’s role as more of an orchestrator who may not need deep hands-on experience with a technology, more the ability to translate what that emerging technology means for the company’s outcomes.

“It’s being able to understand through their education and their experiences the impact these emerging technologies will have on their organisation’s success,’’ Paulman says. 

And a key understanding that can come by educating oneself on digital technologies is the ability to recognise and attract key talent — from all parts of the business, she says. “This is important because there’s less [external] talent.”

This sentiment is shared by Orla Daly, CIO of Skillsoft. “While sometimes you have no choice but to look externally for these skills, investing in internal talent will generate the most success in closing skills gaps,’’ Daly says. “Internal team members already know your business and are vested in its success, and most high-performing employees crave development opportunities.”

They seek out developers and Gen Z tech workers

With such huge technical advances and specialisation coming in the years ahead in areas such as AI, virtual reality, and quantum computing, Helena Nimmo, CIO of UK-based Endava, has discovered she can learn a lot about the application of new technology and techniques by talking with developers.

“They have a unique bottoms-up perspective that is helpful,” she says.

She also finds “that Gen Z technology workers think differently than my generation about how technology is used and applied to business. They will continue to heavily influence future solutions, so we can learn a lot from our younger team members through their unique perspectives.”

They always keep the business in their sights

NYU’s Peters believes that even as the CIO role evolves into a business leader, they cannot continue to lead without attaining new digital skills. “Successful CIOs today and in the future must be ‘business technology leaders.’ This is someone that has the three pillars of skills: business, technology, and the operational functions of IT,” he says.

TripAction’s Huffman agrees that CIOs must keep their digital skills sharp to drive various organisational objectives. “If they’ve got a good team, they can rely on them for insight, but … you can’t be far removed or I don’t think you’ll be able to do your job effectively,” she says.

But as Saatva’s Huston says, for CIOs, self-education on technical topics is ultimately all about fulfilling business needs: “Once I’ve investigated a problem area, I can help employees understand it and make better strategic build vs. buy decisions.”

This emphasis on attaining digital skills to vet their business impact is “absolutely critical,” Paulman says, adding that digital transformation is now a top priority and “we’re seeing a significant shift in funding from IT to the business for the purposes of digital transformation” initiatives.

“CIOs who cannot bridge the gap between emerging technologies and their broad applicability to the business will be commoditised,’’ Paulman says. “We will see the IT role [become] more about operational fitness and security and less about driving the transformation businesses need.”

This means CIOs are at a critical crossroads, Paulman says. They need to be a source of knowledge about emerging technologies and be able to tap into their business knowledge to bring the right people together to form blended teams.


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