Masterclass provokes debate around the role of the CIO in the boardroom


Leading IT executives discussed the importance of the role during CIO South Africa launch event.

During the launch of the new CIO South Africa community on 01 March 2022, leading IT executives attended a fascinating and provocative masterclass with global strategist Abdullah Verachia on the amplified disruption of technology and what that means for the CIO role – if it should even be called that.

Abdullah started with an analogy, explaining that the canvas we used to paint on is very different from the one we’re currently painting on. “If the canvas is different, then we need a new combination of colours to paint on that canvas,” he said. “And if we have a new canvas, and a new combination of colours, then we also need new skills as painters.”

He then further elaborated that the canvas is what’s happening around us. The set of colours is the essence of strategy and decision-making, and what we’re doing in response to this changing environment. This makes the painter the CIO.

Abdullah proceeded to put some provocations on the table for discussion, quoting Peter Drucker: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, but to act with yesterday’s logic. Too often we get caught up in the turbulence without understanding that we can’t change it, but we can change how we respond. So if the canvas is different, we need to pick up a new set of colours.”

A new canvas
Abdullah’s first provocation was that Covid-19 has become the biggest enabler of the role of the CIO as the world adopts a more digital approach to doing business. “The need for faster, more affordable technology and better computing power has precipitated the combination of existing technologies to create new ones that add value to changing business environments.”

This new combination of technologies, he said, has reinvented the ecosystems and business models that companies are talking about in the boardroom. “It’s going to increase, without a doubt, as access to simple connectivity has become ubiquitous, and the global population versus the internet population becomes closer.”

He added that this will start to change the ways in which companies have to think about their relevance in the future.

Abdullah’s second provocation posed the question “should we be calling it the CIO, or something different entirely?”

He explained that there are too many connotations, biases, perspectives and perceptions in terms of what a CIO should be doing versus what they actually do. And that they are not just the IT technician making sure you have connectivity in the background, but driving the new strategies that businesses have had to adopt because of the changing digital landscape.

Chief xxx officer
Abdullah’s provocations sparked an intense discussion about the role of the CIO, what it should actually be called, and how it is understood in the boardroom.

One of the attendees suggested that the role be called “chief innovation officer”, as the role of the CIO is fluid because of constantly changing technology and the importance it has in business.

However, a second attendee said that the only thing that matters is the value the CIO brings during board discussions. “You can talk about innovating as much as you want, but you have to make sure the plumbing is right first.”

Another attendee said that the leadership of an organisation should be just that. “Why call the CIO role anything? The leadership team is responsible for the success of their organisation. Every single one of those people add value differently based on their different experiences. So they’re all the same.”

The conversation then turned to trust, and how it is the foundation of any leader’s place on the board. “In order to earn that trust, you need to show that you can add value, but we often neglect to do that because we’re so focused on fixing the plumbing,” one attendee said.

Cut the jargon
Abdullah then posed another provocative question, asking whether CIOs have the skills they need to build that trust. “We came into the role with the technical capabilities, but we need the softer skills to build that trust.”

In order to build this trust, one of the attendees said that CIOs need to “cut the jargon” and translate the machine language into human language. “We need to become a debate maker, not just a decision maker, and take everyone with you on the journey.”

Invigorated by the discussion, the group then concluded that the CIO title doesn’t have to change, but that their skills as painters did.



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