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Evolving role of the CIO key to the future of work

Allan Tate, executive chair of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, explains how the pandemic pushed CIOs to the forefront as enterprises scrambled to adapt to a new normal.

When the pandemic forced organizations to shift their employees to remote work and find new ways to serve customers, one thing became clear: The CIO role is key to the future of work. Over the past year, CIOs have stepped up to the plate, beefing up networks, implementing new communication platforms, automating business processes, bolstering security and -- most notably -- helping their companies figure out how to remain viable in a digital marketplace. More than perhaps ever before since the role debuted some 40 years ago, CIOs were called on to become business strategists.

"They've begun to think more abstractly about the business problems and partner with the other business leaders," said Allan Tate, executive chair of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, which is introducing its first digital edition over the course of eight weeks starting on April 5, 2021.

We spoke with Tate ahead of the event to explore the evolving role of the CIO, what IT leaders were up against as the pandemic raged and the digital technologies they're adopting to keep up as companies enter into the proverbial new normal.

What are you seeing in terms of the CIO role changing? What are they doing differently from a year ago?

Allan Tate: The biggest cliché is that COVID brought two years of digital transformation in two months. CIOs had to focus on operations, they had a lot of people scatter having to work remotely [and] customer habits had to change. What I'm hearing a lot from CIOs is that they are becoming more integrated into the business -- becoming partners with the business rather than being in the back office. They're getting more involved in strategy [and] in planning, especially as companies are embracing some of the new technologies like cloud and AI. They're really seeing new opportunities, both to save money and also venture out into new products.

You mentioned this push for digital transformation. Which digital technologies are you seeing CIOs embrace more or less of during the pandemic?

Tate: The first thing is online infrastructure. As thousands of employees moved out, the CIOs had to make sure that they could get connectivity, that the data was secure [and] that they were able to conduct online meetings. Of course, everybody is on Zoom all the time now. And so that was first and foremost -- keeping the operation running.

But what I'm hearing from a lot of CIOs is a move to the cloud. One CIO said that often, CIOs were working on the plumbing and so they were looked at as kind of a back office -- bring in the plumber when you need to get something fixed. But as they've been moving into the cloud and getting their processes in place, using Agile and DevOps, they've begun to be able to think more abstractly about the business problems and partner with the other business leaders. It leads to an opportunity to bring in artificial intelligence as well as data analytics, because they can identify problems that can be solved and then bring in those technologies to solve them. We're seeing a lot of CIOs moving up to a higher level of abstraction as they look at the bigger business problems and try to bring value to their clients, as well as their employees.

Companies had to be agile to survive this past year. Talk a little bit about the transfer of Agile principles to the enterprise at large. Are you seeing a lot of that?

Tate: Yes, and not in a number of different ways. Agile as you know, grew out of the software development community, as people were trying to figure out how to build these large software systems, but now it's become something that I think has been embraced across the corporate culture more generally. When you think about what the CIOs have to do, they have to manage their products and infrastructure, not just from a digital point of view but they also have their supply chains.

For example, we have Yossi Sheffi talking [at the conference] about the impact the pandemic has on businesses. Part of that was supply chain disruption, which we all experienced. But if you think about it, to a large degree, it's a data problem in terms of planning and logistics and connecting with all the different vendors. So, one of the ways to deal with resiliency is to be more agile and to be able to adapt more quickly to changes in the environment. And I think that's one of the things that COVID really has taught people.

About the 2021 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

This year the symposium organizers created their own virtual meeting place, where they will hold virtual panels and round-table discussions within the setting of an online community, further enabling CIOs and other IT leaders to participate and interact from anywhere. Dubbed The Big Reset: Digital Enterprises Shift into High Gear, conference sessions will cover topics ranging from the future of work and talent acquisition to cybersecurity, digital innovation and enterprise strategy.

MIT Sloan gives out the CIO Leadership Award, which takes place during the symposium. Are there any CIO projects or endeavors that surprised you over the last year, as companies scrambled to adapt?

Tate: The pandemic has brought about a lot of shifts and people's mindset -- that's the thing that stands out for me -- cultural shifts in terms of companies embracing the need for digitization, the need to integrate digital into their products and how to figure out how to bring that value. There's a lot of work going on to train employees so that they can have people thinking at all levels of the organization.

Also, talent acquisition -- but where do you find talent? And where can that talent live? I don't think we're going to go back to working in offices, although we will, to some degree, but it's going to be a mix. And people are finding that they can find talent from a wider pool because remote work has been more embraced.

I also think that there's shifts in education. People are starting to wonder: Do we always need a four-year degree or how do I keep up as a professional? Online education has become both prevalent and accepted in many ways. And consumer habits have changed -- contactless transactions and customer expectations in terms of ordering products online. Do they want to go into the source? What really strikes me about the time that we're in right now is that everybody is shifting in so many different directions. And CIOs are really at the hub of keeping up with those shifts and adapting the technology and working with the other business leaders to make it all work.

Editor's note: Responses were edited for length and clarity.

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