IT used to only keep the lights on, but now it’s a change agent, that’s guiding the business.
On 8 August, IT leaders gathered at The Saxon Hotel and Spa for an intimate dinner to discuss how the role of the CIO has evolved over the years. The dinner was hosted by CIO South Africa in partnership with Executive Partner Workday. What dominated the discussion was the fact that the IT role is no longer a backdoor function, but one of an influencer. However, before guests dug into the meat of things, they reflected on where it all began, their first-ever paying jobs.
One CIO revealed that he started off as an informal florist, selling flowers on the side of the road. It was his way of paying for his university education. While another CIO revealed that they worked in retail as a teller, handling returns. One popular occupation for most of the guests was waiting tables at a restaurant, but they soon realised that path wasn’t meant for them. In fact, one guest knew early on that they would much rather lead than be led. “I realised very quickly that I didn’t like taking orders,” they said.
From cable plugger to influencer
According to one dinner guest, the conversation around technology has always been very transactional and about service level agreements (SLAs), but now it has shifted to a conversation about what value technology can bring.
“My role as a CIO today is to be one of an influencer to the organisation and guide the business,” he explained. “It’s also about adding value to the organisation, managing relationships, and longer about boxes and server rooms.”
The guest had a terrific example to give about the impact CIOs make in the business when discussing the value IT brings to the table. “I’m leaving my current organisation soon, and it was very satisfying to hear that they felt there would be a very obvious gap after I left,” they explained. “Because of the position, I played an important role in the business, but most importantly, I added value.”
For another IT leader who serves as both CIO and CTO, as challenging as that can be, it is equally rewarding, they revealed. For them, it is all about finding areas in the business where they can add value, which makes the job exciting. In addition, they said, having a dual role from an IT perspective can be very beneficial. You get a good overview of the business and its various departments, which eliminates activities like shadow IT.
At board level, one guest revealed that exco has now adopted a digital-first agenda, across all industries. However, the role of the CIO is to champion that digital-first agenda, not necessarily own it, and try their level best to drive that change.
“For me, the biggest indicator in terms of growth and how the role of the CIO has evolved is when the C-suite speaks the same language. By that I mean, when someone speaks to the CEO and the CIO, and cannot tell the difference – that’s when you know you have the right leadership in place,” they explained.
In fact, it gets more interesting, they said, especially when it’s the CEO that says that they are very comfortable with IT driving the business, which is an uncomfortable conversation. “The biggest drivers in our business are the CTOs, who are leading transformation at different levels,” he added.
Another guest shared those sentiments and said that the CIO will now be expected to lead people, functions, and the organisation. As a result, they need to be able to play different roles of CEO and CFO as well, and while the CIO would not have the qualifications for those disciplines, it is mainly about a willingness to learn in the process.
“The role has shifted from being a back door function to dealing with multiple responsibilities that require multiple skills – that’s what it takes to have a seat at the table,” one guest commented. “CIOs are now having strategic conversations and this is because most companies today are becoming technology companies that happen to operate in a particular industry.”
IT or the CIO, one guest said, has shifted from being a service, to now leading change, is less about technology, and more about business value. The CIO, according to them, has to look beyond technology and look at the talent as well in order to be a well-rounded CIO.
From artificial intelligence to intelligent assistant
According to one CIO, mentoring and coaching has also shifted post-Covid-19. Innovation has now become the new way of work, and IT leaders can play a role in pushing people to become more innovative. The sudden shift towards innovation has largely been influenced by the emergence of AI, they revealed.
“We use Workday for recruiting at our organisation,” one guest said. “But we also have Bullhorn, an applicant tracking system, and a virtual assistant called Connie. Connie helps the recruiter track and follow up on applications, and candidates that stand out. We look at AI as an augmenter more than anything.”
He believed that it was no longer about technology, but managing people’s feelings towards technology. “People are often resistant to change and the CIO can play a significant role in trying to manage that change.”
“We also need to get the most out of data and use it to its fullest potential: getting people to embrace technology and seeing the good in it rather than the bad, getting exco to see the potential benefits of AI, and changing the term from AI to (IA) – intelligent assistant.”
Dealing with change and managing talent
As far as talent is concerned, one guest made it a priority to drive leadership development in their organisation. According to him, second to the people, leaders are the most important part of the organisation. “This is an area that human capital is usually responsible for, but we as CIOs have a role to play on that front as well,” he noted.
“We need to get the right people in,” observed another guest. “Because the truth is that we are losing people – and good people for that matter – to global firms and offers we simply can’t compete with.”
Graduate programmes are one thing, guests agreed, but the biggest selling point will be creating a culture of an organisation that people want to work for, and making it attractive in that sense. “There is a silver lining,” said one guest. “We need to look at countries that have similar challenges, like a weaker currency, and see what they are doing as far as keeping their talent is concerned.”
However, IT leaders need to be prepared for the eventuality of people leaving, have a contingency plan in place, and the right documentation and processes for someone to step in once that person has left.
“Focus on retaining the people you currently have, and attracting a new pipeline,” one CIO commented. “Look beyond our borders for talent; hire people who are smarter than you.”
They concluded that there is no silver bullet to solving everything that comes with an evolving role, but CIOs can empower themselves by being innovative, always learning something new, practising the art of asking questions, and being comfortable with not knowing all the answers.
Those in attendance were:
- Andrew Baker, Clinix CIO
- Ebrahim Samodien, Absa Group: Group Services CIO
- May Govender, Old Mutual Acting Group CIO
- Josh Souchon, Sasfin Bank Group CIO
- Johan du Plessis, Afrimat, GM: Technology Systems Cluster
- Justin Freeman, Telesure CIO
- Kiv Moodley, Workday South Africa Country Manager
- Reabetswe Rabaji, CIO South Africa Managing Editor
- Nomahlubi Sonjica, CIO South Africa Community Manager
- Shabhana Thaver, Investec Specialist Bank CIO
- Unathi Thosago, Adcorp Group CTO
- Siya Mnyanda, Workday South Africa Senior Account Executive: Enterprise