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The evolving CIO role: From IT operator to business strategist


History of the CIO role through the decades

To understand the remarkable transformation of the CIO’s role, it helps to review IT’s top job at some of its major inflection points.

1950s through 1970s: The mainframe era

In the mainframe era, IT’s top professionals were the specialized programmers, systems operators and analysts hired to operate the massive machines that gave the era its name. Also known as big iron, mainframes are the expensive, complex computers that debuted in the late 1950s and were used primarily The heyday of the mainframe was followed This decentralization of information systems gave rise to IT managers throughout the enterprise — including businesspeople with IT expertise. At the same time, decentralization highlighted the need for an executive-level technology leader to oversee a function that now touched every part of the enterprise, directly affected how businesses made money and increasingly dictated how employees did their jobs. The term CIO came into use in 1981.

Evolution of the CIO role
The role of the enterprise’s top IT leader has changed significantly over the decades.

1990s through early 2000s: Web and e-business arrive

CIOs in this period remained responsible for delivering new IT systems on time and on budget, as well as for running existing and new systems with a high degree of reliability. The technical challenges CIOs faced did not abate. The 1990s marked the adoption of the modern enterprise resource planning software suites that collected and managed data produced at different levels of the business. These were costly, complex systems that often required significant business process reengineering. At large companies, there were data centers to build, networks to protect and critical business applications to maintain.

Even as CIO responsibilities expanded, IT continued to be viewed as an expense center rather than an investment in business success. (The idea of IT as an innovation hub was far off.) As a result, CIOs were continually pressured to cut costs and strive to do more with less.

One trend that helped turn around the perception of IT as purely a cost center was the adoption of IT chargeback, an accounting strategy that applies the costs of IT services, hardware and software to the business unit in which they are used. This strategy was a change from traditional IT accounting models, in which all the technology costs were absorbed Another development that changed the role of the CIO and IT was the advent of e-business, the conducting of business processes online, and e-commerce, the buying and selling of goods and services on the web. This opened the door for some CIOs and their IT departments to become more deeply involved in business strategy.

2005 to present: Revolution driven The immensely successful debut of the iPhone in 2007, followed But the trend that perhaps most radically redefined the CIO role was the advent of enterprise cloud computing services in the early 2000s. Cloud computing companies provided software, infrastructure and platforms as a service to other organizations. The use of cloud shifted IT investment from a capital expense to an operating expense, dramatically cut the time to provision services to business users, and forced CIOs to deal with a new class of vendors. It also gave them more time to focus on strategy and enabled them to spend less time managing internal computing infrastructure.

The rise of cloud providers brought about another big change: They allowed business leaders and workers to easily procure powerful technology without consulting IT managers and the CIO. The potential security risks and integration problems posed Between 2010 and 2019, the need for digital transformation marked yet another turning point in the role of the CIO and IT, but not without resistance and hardly overnight. Despite the power and reach of digital powerhouses such as Apple, Amazon and Google and the ability of upstarts like Uber and Airbnb to disrupt entire industries, many legacy companies were slow to embark on a so-called digital transformation journey and make the required technology, business process and cultural changes it called for. That reluctance was obliterated The COVID-19 pandemic set off a mind-boggling acceleration of digital transformation, as companies raced to accommodate remote workers, make business applications accessible to employees, partners and customers, and embrace hyperautomation along with its panoply of technologies to integrate and scale enterprise automation.

Let’s break down this period of rapid and extreme change.

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