CIO as strategic partner for digital sucess

13 June 2024 - CIO as strategic partner for digital sucess


Traditionally, IT has been seen as a technology delivery service: business strategy and operating models have been developed and approved, then passed to IT to deliver the tech elements. In some cases, decisions on how and where to invest technology budgets have already been made before IT gets involved. Not long ago, reputable universities, institutions and companies invested most of their capital in physical assets. Today many of these organisations have replaced “bricks” with “clicks”, rapidly accelerating into the online world, one which requires greater agility, scalability, and continuous improvement at pace. Organisations are now often much more geographically dispersed, requiring a greater sense of connectivity across teams, customers, and stakeholders. IT has arguably become the framework that underpins and holds together any modern organisation, and must therefore be seen as a fundamental part of the business architecture. In turn, the CIO must adopt a much more integrated role of leader, influencer, and partner to their fellow C-Suite executives.

This isn’t always easy though, and the perception of IT can often be outdated, with a lack of recognition or understanding of the value and importance of technology strategy and architecture. As a result, CIOs and IT Directors can struggle to be heard, or are left out of the conversation until it’s too late, resulting in missed opportunities, ineffective or inefficient solutions, and spiralling costs. Many organisations are carrying significant amounts of technical debt, often built up over many years of sustained underinvestment, not just in technology but also in people, governance, standards and controls. Without the input and influence of the CIO in business strategy and planning, the risk of this debt rising further increases. We see far too many news stories nowadays about failures or huge delays to large system transformations, and all too often the underlying cause is unsustainable and unmanageable levels of customisation and bespoke development that has been engineered into the system - often driven by a lack of awareness or understanding of good digital architecture in senior leadership. By adopting a digital-first approach with your CIO as a partner, we can all avoid this by finding the optimal balance of standardisation and customisation, thereby investing time, effort, and budget where and when it adds the most value.

Low levels of digital capability in leadership teams can also play a part, but it's no longer acceptable for senior colleagues to say things like "I don't (or can't) do technology" - that's like a CIO saying, "I don't do finance”, or “I don’t do risk". It's often not true either, and sends an unhelpful message to others in the organisation that digital is a) optional, b) not important, and c) too hard. This is particularly relevant given the continuously evolving cyber risk landscape, which organisations can only respond to effectively if cyber – and digital more widely – is seen as a team effort; the responsibility of everyone, not just the IT team.

To enable a change in perception and recognition of digital leadership, the role of the IT team will need to change too. We will see more jobs in IT with an emphasis on business, such as business analysts, business architects, and digital product managers. With fewer digital solutions being crafted and developed in-house by internal IT teams, and an ever-increasing reliance on cloud technologies, we will need more focus on building and maintaining relationships with vendors and partners, effectively driving value and enhancement through strategic partnerships, rather than by managing kit. The dramatic rise in opportunity, adoption and impact of Artificial Intelligence requires a similarly dramatic shift in the mindsets of our people. Continuous improvement of digital products and platforms, rather than projects focused on IT systems and software, will require more skills in disciplines such as agile and dev-ops. It’s also likely we’ll see increasing numbers of CIOs emerging from non-technical career paths. Servant leadership, creative thinking, relationship management, and some of the more human-centric, non-techy skills are all now more important than ever.

Collaboration and transparency are also key to success, both within our organisations but also across the sector. In education, UCISA plays a pivotal role in supporting CIOs and their teams respond to these challenges, through its various communities of practice, its programme of conferences, events and webinars. Many of our members, including our CIO community, cite their involvement in, and engagement with the UCISA community as a significant enabler for change, development, and growth – both from a personal and professional perspective, and at all levels of their institutions.

The organisations that get this right, those who empower the CIO role to be a strategic partner to the rest of the organisation, are the ones who will benefit most. Whether that’s through increased revenue, competitive differentiation, greater market share, or finding and adopting new business models, the CIO is your critical enabler for digital change, and the key to success in business.

  • James Crooks, CIO, Durham University and UCISA Deputy Chair
  • Karen Bates, Deputy CDIO, London Business School and UCISA Trustee
  • Paul Butler, CIO, University of Greenwich and former UCISA Trustee