The rebranding of the CIO

Today’s CIO has a once-in-a-career opportunity to build an organization that can fulfill a very real need: that of in-house consultant. For many IT organizations, that won’t be easy, but no part of digital transformation is. For IT, it’s a complete change of mission, from one of control and gatekeeping to one of support and advice.

Kristina Podnar
February 18, 2021
- 7 min read

Back when I first joined the workforce, a computer was a box that sat on your desk, and IT was the number you called when you needed a technician to come move it from one desk to another. Today, we’re in the midst of a digital transformation, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have envisioned what we take for granted today (although I like to think that Steve Jobs, standing on that stage to reveal the very first iPhone, may have had an inkling). Whether or not we really envisioned today’s state of technology, here we are. Technology has completely changed the way we do business. It’s changed the way we work, it’s changed the way we engage with customers, and it’s fundamentally changed the role of what was once quaintly known as “the IT department.”

What changed?

Think of it this way. A few decades ago, if the head of Marketing wanted to buy a precursor to one of today’s CRM platforms, he had to go through IT to do it. Not only did IT have to approve the funding for both hardware and software, they also had to write service-level standards for the contract, vet the contenders, set everything up, and teach users how to use the new program. Alternatively, they may have even suggested (or insisted on) creating a proprietary platform from scratch -- and put it at the bottom of their six-month-long to-do list.

Today, thanks to the movement of everything to the cloud, if Marketing needs a better CRM, they just research the many SaaS solutions available, maybe have a few meetings with sales reps, test drive the software, and make their decision. From Marketing’s perspective, there may be no need whatsoever for IT to be involved. Nor is there a need for IT to be involved in website design, password protocols, etc.  

The same is true for a leader of Supply Chain and Logistics who wants to use blockchain technology to track and document deliveries every step of the way. Or a department head who decides to cut costs by implementing a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy. Or a sales manager who encourages sales reps to scan and email contracts from their personal (unencrypted) cell phones.

To sum things up, the digital cow is already out of the barn. Functional areas don’t need IT to get them set up with a new platform or service. Moreover, since, in many companies, IT traditionally played the role of gatekeeper, department heads may be hesitant to ask questions or report problems (even breaches). That means things like security and integration can easily be overlooked.

What all of that means is that IT could well be on the brink of becoming irrelevant. And that would be quite tragic, because we need IT professionals more than ever, just not in the same way as we used to. That means IT departments that want to remain relevant have a big task ahead of them: Rebranding.

The rebranding of IT

Clearly, the role of IT employees as technicians and gatekeepers isn’t relevant to today’s world, nor should it be. But that doesn’t mean that CIOs and other IT professionals should just sit in their offices, reading industry updates and waiting for a fire to break out. On the contrary, today’s CIO has a once-in-a-career opportunity to build an organization that can fulfill a very real need: that of in-house consultant.

For many IT organizations, that won’t be easy, but no part of digital transformation is. For IT, it’s a complete change of mission, from one of control and gatekeeping to one of support and advice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how CIOs and the IT organizations they lead can make that happen. I think the best approach is to do it in three steps, each of which we’ll cover in this three part series:

  • Establishing the CIO’s critical role in organizational strategy
  • Redesigning the structure of the IT organization and the role it plays in the company
  • Rebranding IT to the rest of the organization

Establishing the CIO’s critical role in organizational strategy

The Internet of Things (IoT) -- interconnected devices whose potential is only now becoming clear -- has already been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution (also known as Industry 4.0). To get an idea of what a huge change is headed our way -- not just in work, but in education, culture, societal norms, etc. -- all you have to do is take a look at the first three industrial revolutions and their impact on our society:

  1. The steam engine changed the world by enabling high-speed transportation and mass production in factories.
  2. The use of electricity, oil, and steel set the stage for inventions like the lightbulb, the telegraph, and the internal combustion engine.
  3. The silicon chip democratized computing, opening the door to computers small enough to sit on a desk, operate a phone that can fit in your pocket and, now, run thousands of connected devices so small you forget they’re there.
  4. The internet made it possible for people, and then devices, to instantly communicate with someone on the other side of the globe, leading to the nickname “snail mail” for letters delivered by the post office, something that had been the gold standard for decades.

And it’s the internet that laid the foundation for the impending fourth industrial revolution: connected devices with almost unlimited potential.

That’s why I see the role of the rebranded CIO as that of crystal ball holder rather than gatekeeper: Knowing what’s possible and translating that potential for the C-suite. In other words, CIOs now have the opportunity to actually drive the business rather than merely support it.

Step 1: Moving from supporting the business to driving it

Traditionally, CIOs have frequently been siloed, playing more of a support role than a strategic role. Today, however, organizations don’t need the same kind of support. They do, however, need insight and guidance. They need a CIO who can tell them what’s possible and how to get there rather than someone who can just go procure what they asked for.

How do you drive that change? By changing the way you interact with your peers. If you’ve traditionally played the role of gatekeeper, telling your peers what IT solutions they can and can’t use in their own departments (if, in other words, they start humming the Imperial March from Star Wars when they see you coming), you’re going to have to work to change your image to one of servant leadership.

What does that mean? It means sitting down with other functional leaders, asking them about their strategic goals, and digging a little further to find out what’s getting in the way. You might be surprised how obstacles that seem insurmountable to them are easy to solve with your IT background. And there might be other problems that you don’t know how to solve right away, but you do know where to start looking for solutions.

That’s servant leadership.

Step 2: Proposing opportunities

Another aspect of servant leadership is identifying opportunities. You can offer solutions that leaders from other functional areas may not be aware of or are hesitant to pursue because of short-term financial goals. Here are two realistic examples:

  • Operating costs in the organization’s warehouses are increasing, and the company needs to find a way to cut costs. Typical suggestions might be to cut jobs, cut hours, etc. As CIO, you know there’s a better solution: installing connected sensors to monitor how various warehouse jobs are done so that processes can be made more efficient. (Data shows that routes taken by forklift drivers are 30% longer than necessary.) Rerouting the drivers is a lot easier than cutting staff, and it’s a good bet that you’ll find similar opportunities in other warehouse jobs, like receiving or picking orders.
  • If your company is looking for a way to reduce worker compensation costs, you could suggest using wearable devices to collect data about where, when, and how accidents happen. That data could then be analyzed and used to develop new, safer procedures that would protect workers and reduce costs.

Step 3: Identifying risks and recommending solutions

There are also risks associated with the massive amounts of data we have (and continue to collect). Privacy issues and the huge risks associated with data breaches have been discussed at length, and I doubt there are many people in the C-suite who are unaware of those risks. But no one is in a better position than the CIO to explain these risks in real-life terms and be an advocate for best-practice solutions (something that’s much less common than you might think). A quick look at the headlines is enough to prove that some breach responses do more harm than good.

In addition, many security plans ignore operational risks. In 2015, for example, hackers used a virus hidden in an Excel spreadsheet to compromise portions of the country’s power grid. The impact of such operational risks obviously depends on the organization, but it’s not hard to imagine a virus infecting a manufacturing plant’s IoT-enabled equipment, shutting down operations and affecting all of their business downstream. Drawing attention to risks that might not be obvious to the rest of the leadership team is one of the most important aspects of a CIO’s strategic advisory role.


Given that we’re in the middle of a digital transformation that shows no signs of slowing down, it’s essential that CIOs play an integral role in organizational strategy, serving in an advisory role by providing insight into how technology can be used to maximize opportunities and minimize risks.


This insight is the first one in a series of articles around rebranding, redesigning and reestablishing IT within the enterprise.

Part 2: Redesigning the structure of the IT organization and the role it plays in the company

Part 3: Launching your rebranded IT organization to the rest of the company


Photo by Stéphane Mingot

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