A decade ago, chief information officers were kings.

“We were kings of the castle called a datacenter with a moat around us,” says Steve Zerby, Vice President and CIO, Owens Corning. “And all these years we thought the moat was there to keep people out. But in actuality, it kept us from getting out.”

But times have changed. With digital transformation, the position is more about enablement and the CIO is now becoming the chief connections officer.  

The changing CIO role was the topic of a panel discussion entitled Leveraging Ecosystems – Partnering Inside And Outside For Success at TCS Summit 2019 North America in San Antonio, Texas. Chaired by Futurist and Corporate Strategist Nancy Giordano, panel members included Michael Brady, CIO, USAA, Anthony Roberts, Senior Vice President and Global CIO, Walgreens Boot Alliance, Mike Shadler, Senior Vice President and CIO, Pacific Life, and Steve Zerby, Vice President and CIO, Owens Corning

The evolving ecosystem 

Increasingly blurred lines between businesses and their partners mean that interaction across ecosystems is crucial to success. From the perspective of CIOs and their teams, this means creating a frictionless infrastructure that allows for partnerships and feeds innovation. It means building IT systems that support and drive agility.

“Agility that started in IT has expanded into our businesses as a whole,” said Michael Brady. “We’re moving beyond waterfall delivery and ‘we’ll be back in a year’ to a faster, more responsive model.” 

Location is becoming increasingly irrelevant and support is being drawn in from around the globe, bringing speed to businesses and expanding the network of potential customers.

For Brady, this greater operational efficiency is a precursor to scale. Added to this, machine learning and AI frees up and augments human workers, providing businesses with further opportunities to leverage.

This means that being big isn’t always being the best – finding a partner to scale with is increasingly becoming a better alternative.

And as Anthony Roberts, SVP and Global CIO, Walgreens Boot Alliance explained, these ecosystems need to be built and supported to drive innovation from within. The architecture of businesses needs to allow for agility and ideation, with partners working together seamlessly at the core.

Source: Tata Consultancy Services

Where competitors become partners

As Mike Shadler explained, his business is a ‘solution manufacturer’: it needs to partner with its distributors in order to deliver. This means creating a structure where businesses and partners can operate as if they were one and the same.

“We are moving to a world where we leverage a broad people ecosystem. And the power of that is immense. As any company you must focus on your core competency,” he said, and that means working alongside your partners and leaning on their expertise.

“You have to find a way to integrate yourself into an ecosystem of people that spans the world and brings the right talent to what you are trying to do. So that can mean that we not only do traditional service provider infrastructure, but also architectural design and agile coaching and development.”

The changing role

Many aspects of the modern CIO’s role didn’t exist until recently. And often larger businesses may find they may have multiple people that function as de facto CIOs in the old sense of the role, when it was more technically focused. 

But the fluidity and connectivity required from the role doesn’t mean there are no boundaries. There must be discipline in the organization – and CIOs need to provide the framework. Alongside freedom, there needs to be architecture.

“The tectonic plates of technology are really driving some fundamental changes. When we look back, it won’t be Trump, it won’t be China, it will be the changes in technology that are leading to really different ways in which society is going to evolve,” said Roberts.

“CIOs are no longer prisoners of that moat, castle and scarce resources: now is their time,” said Zerby.