Tim Fernihough has had a front-seat view of the changing role of the CIO in recent years. The CIO of Myplanet, a software company based in Toronto, Canada, that provides omnichannel commerce solutions to many Fortune 500 companies, argues the change has been dramatic: from an internally focused role to one that helps meet the growing demands of end customers.
“It’s no longer just about being at the helm of an interoffice network of desktop machines,” he says. We asked Fernihough what it means to think strategically, how the CIO-CTO relationship has shifted and what Covid showed us about technology transformation.
How has digital transformation impacted the CIO’s work?
The reality of a more complex digital offering naturally complicates the role. It’s no longer just about being at the helm of an interoffice network of desktop machines—now there are a host of software and hardware considerations that are constantly changing and evolving and that need to be upgraded to keep pace with competitors. Flaws in the backend system can be make-or-break in a fast-moving marketplace, giving competitors a chance to swoop in and win over customers with a superior experience.
All this means the CIO needs to be more strategic than ever before. It goes beyond balancing a tight budget for technical needs year-over-year; it’s about understanding the ways in which the business will grow and thinking through the long-term investments that need to be made to help it get there. Depending on the scale and size of the organization, CIOs need to be as enmeshed in strategic business decisions as sales, marketing and any other key decision makers. That wasn’t always the case, but our world is so dependent on tech systems now that it really has become a core function over the last decade or so.
So what are you doing differently?
The role has shifted from a more tactical “this is the best solution to a current need for our business” role to a strategic, long-term vision role. How do we set ourselves up for success not just in the immediate, but also in five, 10 and 20 years? What do we need to invest in today to ensure we’re able to continue serving clients and customers as the business shifts and evolves in a constantly in-flux market?
This past year provides a great example: we saw, first-hand, how immediately teams needed to be able to respond to completely different work circumstances. It became suddenly obvious to everyone how important a strategically minded CIO is to the ongoing success of a business. Shifting to a work-from-home arrangement was not as straightforward as having everyone taking their laptops home and carrying on as usual—there were layers of complexity around facilitating that experience at every level of the business that a CIO was a core decision-maker on.
Who did it best?
We all experienced challenges in making that transition, but the companies that managed with the greatest ease were the ones that had made smart investments over the last five years to set themselves up for success in a digital-first world. Not only were their systems in better shape, their mindsets and operations were geared to function in those circumstances differently too. Because again, the function has moved beyond just tooling. It’s a completely different way of operating now.
How did Myplanet fare?
Myplanet has always been remote friendly and we already had a significant component of our workforce working remotely permanently, so we’ve been invested in many of these foundational first steps for years. When the pandemic hit, we were able to gear up operations for the whole team to operate remotely without too much trouble and now, as we transition to remote-first going forward, we’re able to build upon those foundations further to optimize the experience not only for our teams, but for our clients and customers as well.
How do you think the role will continue to change?
The CIO has historically been seen as an inward-facing role, responsible for ensuring an actionable game plan and roadmap for internal infrastructure and technologies to support the business. It’s also historically been in contrast to the CTO role, one that’s seen more as forming externally facing technology strategies that help grow the business and meet customer needs.
While the aforementioned CIO responsibilities remain true—and continue to grow in importance with the rise of technologies like AI, IoT and machine learning, as well as the prevalence of privacy regulations—I think the CIO role needs to shift to play as much of a role as the CTO in ensuring that a company and its offerings remain indispensable to end customers. And I think it’s very important that the CTO and CIO of an organization work together in lockstep.
We are in the midst of a once-in-a-100-year pandemic crisis that forced many companies to re-evaluate what they can afford to invest in and possibly even rethink their entire customer engagement model. For many, hard decisions had to be made: what internal systems could be afforded, what had to be reduced or cut, and what investments needed to be made to survive and thrive in a changed world. To remain indispensable to customers during this time, CIOs needed to evaluate the tools and investments with a more strategically aligned eye than ever before. For Myplanet, the pandemic sharpened a recognition that every interaction with a customer should be treated as an opportunity to understand them and improve their journey as our customer, and that meant as CIO I made specific investments in areas that could support this. CIOs will need to be empowered to make these kinds of future-first investment decisions going forward.
What other priorities have shifted?
Another of the major shifts in CIO priorities I’ve observed and believe will continue to grow as a focus area is ensuring that customers can meet their needs safely. We help shape organizations, orchestrating their end-customer journeys with data-driven experiences, and how my role has altered to meet this mandate in a data-centered world offers a perfect case in point. What was a predominantly internal IT accountability function has taken on a new dimension of standards and compliance as it relates to the work we do for our customers. In conjunction with our CTO, I help standardize our approach to our technology deliverables, and ensure the underlying tooling and infrastructure that we rely on can support that success. As well, I assist my counterparts in navigating the security and privacy risks that inherently come with investments in these areas, so that they and their executive team can sleep at night. Regardless of industry, the increased importance of data and a growing reliance on machine learning means the security component of the role will only continue to grow as both employee and customer safety are considered in tandem with business needs.
This commitment to repeatable, sustainable delivery with a security and privacy first mind-set has enabled Myplanet to remain indispensable to our own customers and more than ever before, the decisions that bring us there are rooted in a business alignment model that includes the CIO earlier and with greater influence than ever before. It’s a big shift in function for the role, but by bringing the CIO into those core business decisions sooner, organizations have the ability to not only prepare their own businesses for a more future-ready mode of operating, but also bring customers along with them in an ever-changing world.