As businesses pivot to keep pace with rapid technological developments, the traditional role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) is fast becoming obsolete. Gone are the days of a CIO being viewed as a cost centre, focused solely on overseeing IT infrastructure, budgets and gantt charts. With organisations pushing hard on customer experience initiatives, CIOs are becoming the backbone of business transformation.

I joined Salesforce as a Senior Vice President at the start of this year, but prior to that I spent five years as Coca-Cola Germany’s CEO, during which time I led a business transformation. Throughout that experience I saw first-hand how the role of the CIO is completely evolving – especially through the eyes of the CEO and fellow C-suite.

Truthfully, there was a time when I used to panic seeing a CIO coming towards my office, because it more often than not meant spending money. Now, I get excited when interacting with CIOs, because it means business transformation.

The game has changed


We’re in the age of the customer. Customers have all the cards, and it’s technology that‘s caused this power-shift. As a result, 81% of IT leaders believe IT is entering a new era driven by customer expectations. And, to thrive in this new world, businesses need to be doubling down on improving the customer experience.

Throw into the mix technological developments in cloud, mobile, social and artificial intelligence, and you have the foundation for crucial business transformation and the tools to meet customer demands. Technology is the answer to business survival, and therefore the responsibilities of a CIO has transcended beyond the purely operational.

CIOs have become intrinsic to business success. They play a pivotal role in unifying and accelerating customer experience efforts across the entire organisation, partnering with sales, customer service and marketing. In fact, 79% of IT leaders believe IT is the primary enabler of customer experience initiatives.

A CIO that only understands technology is very soon going to find themselves out of a job.

The ‘new’ role of the CIO


A CIO now needs to be a jack of all trades. They need to be a driver and enabler of business transformation and growth. In which case, they need business acumen, to recognise customer pain points, be an expert in design thinking and understand how technology can be used to add customer value. CIOs must have great interpersonal skills, because they need to step up as mediators and connectors across the business.

From my experience, if a CIO is to create change horizontally across the business they need a seat at the table, and they need to be reporting directly to the CEO. Equally, CEOs need to be empowering their CIOs, giving them support and a voice.

Coca-Cola Germany’s business transformation – and the CIO’s role within


At Coca-Cola Germany, I became very paranoid about disruption – more CEOs should be. Too often you see a level of arrogance among bigger brands, with many believing they’re immune from disruption – no one is immune to disruption.

We knew that our competitor set had changed from primarily big players to more agile, smaller players. This combined with the growing power of the customer meant we needed to improve our speed, become more nimble as a business and more customer-focused.

There were five core elements that, when added together, defined our business transformation strategy. The CIO is integral to every single one:

  1. Commitmentbusiness transformation is hard and tiresome, and fatigue can set in, especially when there is resistance to change – allies at all levels of the organisation are of essence. So there needs to be a commitment from across the organisation, not just the boardroom, in achieving transformation – this particularly needs to include the frontline and middle management. The role of the CIO is to drive this commitment, articulate the urgency, and show the entire organisation that business transformation can be fun and have quick impact.

  2. Culture – when you’re dealing with such a broad cross-section of people – from digital natives to the digital illiterate – you need to be including everyone in the journey. By getting the right tools into the organisation, a CIO can be instrumental in rapidly changing the culture. For example, employees don’t want to come to work and use technology that is outdated and incongruent to their personal lives – fixing this one factor can really lift an organisation’s culture.

  3. Customer-centricity – every touch point with the customer should be a ‘wow’ experience, which means everything needs to be designed with the customer in-mind. Previously, CIOs didn’t need to worry about the customer but that’s not the case anymore. IT can’t design and deliver the technology needed to create that ‘wow’ customer experience if they don’t understand the customer.

  4. Cloud technology – for ‘wow’ customer experience to be achievable, it’s critical everyone within the business can see the same information, at the same time – cloud technology enables this. The true power of business transformation is unlocked when all channels and data are connected – CIOs again play a pivotal role in achieving this. At the moment, only 1% of customer data is being used by businesses. This means companies aren't connected to their customers.

  5. Campaigning – anything that removes a pain point for the customer needs to be championed, and CIOs play a pivotal role in campaigning for new technology that makes this possible.

Embracing these new CIO responsibilities


With this new set of responsibilities, CIOs won’t be successful if they don’t have a fundamental understanding of the customer. This means attending sales meetings regularly, spending time with customer service and getting in front of the customer wherever possible. Additionally, CIOs have to be across the priorities of other customer-facing teams, because they’re becoming the organisational glue.

Overall the role of the CIO is undergoing an incredibly exciting transformation, more so than other business disciplines. CIOs have gone from being in the corner to the middle of the dance floor, and this shift in responsibility presents enormous career opportunity for CIOs and IT professionals.

Find out how global IT Trailblazers are preparing for a new era of IT driven by customer expectations. Download the State of IT report.

Ulrik Nehammer is Senior Vice President at Salesforce. He tweets at @Bullefranz