Examining the CIO time management dilemma

CIOs are expected to successfully split their time between duties that can greatly vary day to day. Federal Reserve System CIO Ghada Ijam, for instance, says on a good day, 60% of her time is spent on strategic planning and the rest keeping the business running.

As every CIO knows, though, days can be unpredictable, and it’s all hands on deck when unexpected events and crises occur. “There are days where we have incidents and all of my time goes into just keeping the business running,” says Ijam. “That’s the foundation of the job that nobody talks about.”

More or less, there are always operational versus strategic priorities to manage that demand different thinking. “With the strategic, you’ve got to think above the everyday and see what’s coming down the line, and keeping the lights on can be about [dealing with] those crises,” she says. Shifting into and out of those modes in itself is a juggling act, she adds.

While there can be a lot of attention on the new shiny strategic projects, the everyday operational matters can go unrecognized until there’s a crisis. Ijam aims to acknowledge and validate both to the team and the wider organization their dual importance, and the inherent balancing act.

CIOs typically split their time between 40% technology function, 25% collaboration with colleagues, 17% managing business capabilities beyond technology (ESG, customer experience, shared services, for instance), and 18% working with external customers or channel partners of the time, according to Dr. Peter Weill, senior research scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and chairman emeritus of the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR). There’s a lot of plate spinning, and the growing scope of the CIO role means they need to display more agility than ever before.

“This juggling act will only be successfully pulled off by those who can show remarkable levels of flexibility,” says Weill. Adding to the complexity, challenges come from all directions — talent squeeze, macroeconomic pressures, competing business priorities, legacy mindsets, technical debt and a lack of funding. Yet opportunity lies within the adversity, says Weill.

His research also indicates CIOs of companies enjoying the greatest levels of profit and growth spend twice as much time managing complementary enterprise capabilities than organizations that lag behind. “This connection of capabilities helps top performers maximize the value presented by technology,” he explains. 

Weill points to the example of Toyota North America CDO Zack Hicks who was simultaneously CEO and founder of mobility service company Toyota Connected and was connecting complementary capabilities. He believes truly great CIOs are now expected to go above and beyond by helping identify and even produce new digital lines of business made possible by greater tech capability. “This requires greater understanding of customers by the CIO, made possible only through closer collaboration, which will help them co-create solutions that the market will really love,” he says.

Conducting the digital enterprise

Ijam believes CIOs need to navigate through a mindset shift as job requirements have moved from technical to organizational and business management. “There’s a lot more focus on leadership attributes that any C-suite member would be expected to have, but with a technology heavy background and experiences in defining, developing and implementing technology to solve business problems,” she says. “As the CIO, we need to be more like a business executive, like a CEO presenting the full view, rather than just a technologist.”

The skill profile and expectations of the CIO have, therefore, shifted to balance both business management with technology, so, where necessary, CIOs need to bolster those skills accordingly to deliver the right solutions for the business. “What makes a strong CIO is being able to recognize where the blind spots in their skill sets are and bring supplemental skills in with other leaders in the organization,” she adds.

So the CIO role has evolved into this business manager position to understand how technology delivers value to the business. “And because technology is becoming the way we do business, it becomes imperative for the CIO to have that business acumen in addition to the technology,” she says, adding having that acumen is necessary to articulate justifying investment in it to enable organizational growth.

In addition, as CEOs have increased their investment into digital advances in security, AI, and data analytics, their demand for results has grown, according to Gartner VP analyst Daniel Sanchez-Reina. He suggests CIOs need to be quicker and more nimble to deliver, which means handing off tactical, low-value activities to other business areas to democratize digital delivery across the organization. The CIO designs the business technologies they want to have in each of the business areas and trains them to ensure proper governance and avoid problems. These business technologies are saviors for CIOs because CEOs are impatient, says Sanchez-Reina.

Operating at this level, the CIO should become the conductor of technology for the entire enterprise, he suggests, therein maximizing the value of technology.

Replacing the term ‘IT’ with ‘enterprise’ also reflects that the main role of the CIO is to orchestrate and create the technology governance for the entire enterprise. “Otherwise they won’t succeed nor meet the expectations of CEOs to provide the digital dividends they expect,” he says. And to drive successful results, common business outcomes such as customer experience or growth targets, need to be adopted and unified. So each member of the C-suite has to contribute, and the only way to be efficient is to find synergies. “If CIOs don’t do this, they’ll have big problems because each of those initiatives consume IT resources in an isolated, disconnected manner,” Sanchez-Reina says. “And there has to be clear outcome-driven metrics to check if each of those business areas contribute efficiently to that overarching business outcome.”

The CIO as transformation business partner

Technology-led business transformation that organizations undertake also pushes the CIO role further into strategic thinking and vision, according to Ijam.

The disruption means CIOs will increasingly need to combine technology expertise with the vision to imagine a new or transformed business practice in the organization. “It comes down to can we sit down and have conversations about reimagining how we’re going to do business for the organization, and what value can we deliver beyond what’s obvious today because of the investment in technology,” she says.

CIO, IT Leadership, IT Strategy, Roles