The role of the CIO in the C-Suite in 2020

Today’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) looks very different from 35 years ago.

The modern CIO has changed perceptions of their job role, emerging from the back office to become a major player. Back in the ’80s, a CIO was confined to the IT department. Today’s CIO innovates, strategizes, and works with the whole organization.

The changing focus of the modern CIO

If you’re a CIO, your priorities have likely changed a lot in recent years. Network threats are more prevalent than ever — in 2018 alone, hackers stole half a billion personal records. You’re now “gatekeeper” of your company’s intellectual assets and resources. And if data gets compromised, you’ll get the blame.

In a recent CIO Magazine survey, CIOs said “keeping their organization safe” is now their top priority for organizational change. This of course includes cybersecurity, but also covers data protection compliance and cyber resilience. Other organizational priorities for the modern CIO include debt reduction, increasing the company’s digital footprint, modernizing governance, “killing” the data center, and analytics.

There’s also been a change in spending habits. Over the years, the CIO’s role has shifted from one of value preservation to value creation:

“Because IT is the backbone of most business functions, technology investments represent a growing percentage of corporate spending, and many organization stakeholders expect these investments to be aligned with business strategy,” says the Wall Street Journal.

As organizations place an ever greater emphasis on tech, CEOs look to CIOs to drive innovation and revenue-sharing throughout the entire organization.

The modern CIO in Professional Services

The role of the CIO depends on the scope of the organization and the vertical in which it resides. Generally speaking, the professional services industry places a slightly higher priority on improving technological processes than other industries. In this vertical, expect the CIO to be sitting with the rest of the C-suite.

In professional services, the CIO assists senior executives in and out of the boardroom. They’re there to:

  • – Strengthen the integration between business and IT
  • – Improve the return on IT investment, and
  • – Mitigate risk with a data-driven approach.

But research shows that CIOs in professional services have lost direct control of overall IT spending. More than 60 percent of large global companies allow non-IT departments to lead digital and technology investments.

It seems investment in some technologies — namely, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation — drives this trend: “There is no longer business strategy and technology strategy, it’s simply strategy with technology driving it,” says Steve Bates, global leader for CIO services at KPMG.

This strategy could prove perilous. As the CIO has less financial autonomy, and IT spend diverts to non-IT departments, there are privacy and cybersecurity risks. But organizations that balance business involvement with IT-led spending can still benefit.

Other challenges for the modern CIO

As the gatekeeper of so much “soulless” technology, it can be easy to forget that real human beings are the backbone of any organization.

CIOs should invest in People Experience — a discipline applied to software development that puts human impact on top of the IT department’s agenda. The Unit4 People Experience Suite recognizes people are your most important resource, not machines.

“Putting people at the center of your technology strategy highlights one of the most important aspects of technology how it impacts customers, employees, business partners, society or other key constituencies,” says Brian Burke, Vice President of research company Gartner“Arguably all actions of the organization can be attributed to how it impacts these individuals and groups either directly or indirectly.”

And this isn’t the only challenge. Software bloat makes once-simple processes far more complicated than they need to be. 48% of CIOs and senior IT executives say they have more applications than they actually need, and 70 percent say at least 20 percent of their applications are “redundant.” To solve this problem, CIOs should integrate software and systems to manage their resources, people, and vendors.

“The weight of application landscapes is reaching critical mass; disruptive technologies have emerged,” says systems integration company Capgemini“It is no longer a question of ‘whether’ to rationalize, but rather ‘when’ and ‘how’ to do it.”

Going forward, CIOs will also need to be more visible. As IT people require greater transparency from managers, the CIO needs to be more accountable, culpable, and answerable. For some CIOs who have decades of experience, this will be a culture shock, but, in 2020, transparency is critical.

“In terms of achieving business relevance, CIOs believe that transparency provides the foundation for translating strategy into execution,” says CIO Magazine“With it, CIOs believe there can be a common understanding, vision, and even purpose.”

The focus for CIOs in the next 12 months

Over the next 12 months, expect more CIOs to prioritize innovation over information — new technologies and trends that expedite business growth. Machine learning and AI will continue to blossom, and smart CIOs will incorporate these technologies into their digital transformation and revenue-generating exercises.

There will also be a bigger, sharper focus on automation. The latest tools make it easy to automate tasks associated with even the oldest, creakiest legacy systems. Professional service management software, for example, simplifies manual data entry and provides CIOs with deeper, cleaner insights.

Cloud Migration – an opportunity for CIO led change

Cloud computing is the No.1 choice for CIOs who want to modernize their IT portfolios. Some are still reluctant to make the jump thanks to a sense that they lose even more control through migrating to the cloud. But cloud services can provide all the data governance, disaster recovery, and storage benefits CIOs are used to. And given the potential for automation and system integration, it makes more sense to migrate. Especially for professional services firms that stand to create huge process efficiencies and improvements to service delivery by doing so.

The shrewd CIO will customize a cloud solution based on the size, scalability, and requirements of their organization.


The current pandemic will likely have a significant impact on the entire IT industry in the next 12 months, and the modern CIO needs to adapt quickly. CIOs should reassess their priorities and their teams’ skillsets, as IT budgets will likely suffer.

As managers implement remote working capabilities, IT portfolios will probably shift to the cloud. In industries like professional services, this is even more important. Companies who don’t implement remote project management might buckle, and CIOs can help the organization migrate to new technologies before it’s too late.

Final word

In the last 35 years, the CIO’s roles and responsibilities have changed dramatically, and they’ve emerged from the IT department to claim their place in the C-suite. Far from standing for “career is over”, the CIO is increasingly the “first officer” of any organization — the real captain of the ship.

Jo Birtle

Jo Birtle

Jo Birtle is the Director of Demand Generation for Professional Services at Unit4. She has 20+ years marketing experience predominantly in the tech industry, where she has worked for two leading cloud ERP companies, both focused on providing software solutions for the professional services sector.