Building People, Not Systems: the evolving role of the CIO

Amidst the exquisite interior and high ceilings of The Wolseley, we invited some of the best respected CIOs from a wide-range of sectors to discuss common challenges, opportunities and goals in relation to their role.

Co-hosted with Transform, Chair Bill James kicked off the morning with a fascinating history of the Grade II listed building, as a delightful array of breakfast goodies were brought out for the table.

The discussion kicked off with a question: ‘what defines a CIO and what are the essential skills?’, which instantly flowed into an energetic conversation about the changing nature of the role and barriers they faced. It wasn’t long before all guests realised that despite their background- public or private, retail or tech- they were all drawing from similar experiences and attitudes.

By the end of the breakfast three key themes had become clear: the CIO as a change-driver; knocking down silos; and the importance of user/ customer insight.

The Wolseley, London

The Wolseley, London

The CIO was once simply seen as a tech advisor: someone to suggest a quick fix to the processes already in place. Although still a trusted advisor to the CEO, the responsibility has grown into resolving much more strategic, deep-routed issues. Now CIOs are deciding what the processes should be, not just how to fix them.

As the only team to have a holistic overview into the entire business model and all stakeholder’s requirements and issues, CIOs are the best positioned of the c-suite to be “responsible for identifying opportunities” (as nicely put by one of our guests). The role has become about driving change, supporting cultural shifts and visualising the bigger picture. Therefore, our guests agreed that the essential skills a CIO must possess is the ability to spot opportunities, being articulate and a good broker.

We’ve all heard the jokes about the basement desk; the rare interaction with others unless their computer has crashed (thanks to The IT Crowd for fuelling that stereotype: “have you turned it off and on again?!”). But as organisations increasingly value and adopt digital at the heart of their business, this has been completely turned on its head. IT departments have transformed from perhaps the most siloed, to the ambassadors for knocking down silos.


 Whilst other departments can only identify what’s best for their own unit, CIOs face the challenge of inspiring change in a way that’s fit for longevity and for the business as a whole. Becoming ‘digital’ requires agility across all functions; teams need to evolve and collaborate – and it’s the CIO who drives this. The blurring of roles such as CIO, CTO and CDO becomes essential to the success of a digital transformation.

As well a great macro-view of the internal business, the CIO is also well placed to assess the external conditions and needs of the customer or user. All guests at the breakfast agreed that the greatest danger is to make assumptions about the end user. The customer must be at the core of any business and the CIO must etch this into their own company’s culture. Whatever any internal ‘expert’ says means nothing unless it’s clear in customer insight and data.

Quantitative data is infinitely more valuable than qualitative and should be collected in person through interviews, workshops and testing if possible. The best way to bring the customer voice in from the very beginning is through customer co-creation. And B2B companies should also be adopting this B2C mantra. After all, relationships are at the core of B2B business too.

Another huge thank you to all our CIOs for contributing to an interesting and thoughtful conversation. All the guests, who were introduced at the event, have agreed to keep in touch and carry on the conversation- which is fantastic to hear.

There’s great value in the cross-sector sharing of ideas to support each other in common challenges and goals. We’ll be hosting future breakfasts to bring together other roles to learn from one an other’s experiences. Visit the event page on the Transform website for more information on our past and upcoming events.

Article written by Shona Williams from Transform UK