Digital technologies are creating new opportunities and causing companies to rethink their purpose. It’s what we call Business 4.0, harnessing data and technology to refocus business and drive growth.

This means that technology has moved centre stage. Today, every company is a technology company. And this places the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and their team at the heart of the business.

Take, for example, the airline industry. Many airlines still see themselves solely in terms of maintaining and flying planes, which they try to fill to capacity using sophisticated booking systems.

But Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) views its mission as taking the latest technology and innovation and utilizing them to become a more sustainable and digital-first business.

SAS decided to look at things from the customers’ point of view. What matters most to its passengers? For CIO Mattias Forsberg, the answer was to look at the entire journey − from booking a ticket to arriving at a destination – to see how it could be improved for the customer.

Working with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Forsberg and his team digitized the whole process, even creating a chatbot that provides information throughout the journey. 

“This has not only increased our sales but also improved our customer satisfaction,” says Forsberg. “We are now using AI to automate all different kinds of processes in SAS − for example, to improve customer service and reduce response time for customer queries.”

Shifting to agile

In order to achieve this outcome, the airline created its own innovation hub – SAS Labs, in partnership with TCS − with the objective of testing emerging technology and how it could impact the travel experience.  

Massimo Pascotto, Head of Innovation and Digital Solutions and part of Forsberg’s team, says it was essential to take an agile approach to develop at pace.

 “We know that innovation is about impact, so we want to prototype − as fast as possible − experiences for travellers that make their lives easier,” he says.

Today, SAS Labs continues to test ways in which to reimagine the future of transportation using digital capabilities, both in the short- and the long-term. 

It’s not just in the airline industry that CIOs are delivering competitive advantage by placing technology at the heart of their operations. Across the world, retailing is being transformed by online disruptors.

Carl Dawson, CIO of Marks & Spencer, encouraged colleagues to face up to stark reality. Despite its iconic status on the British High Street, he said, the company did not have “a God-given right to exist”.

Dawson realised the company could not possibly have all the ideas they needed to ensure the long-term growth of the company. So, working with TCS, he set up an innovation ecosystem, which gave him access to tech start-ups across multiple disciplines to inject fresh thinking – and power its digital transformation.

“As a result, we’re much faster. We’ve shifted to agile,” says Dawson. “They have injected external innovation to help our internal team. I’m absolutely clear that by using the right ecosystem, we’re doing the right things to make sure that M&S not only survives for the future but for the next 50 or 100 years.”

Dawson’s experience demonstrates how the CIO can become the Chief Innovation Officer, leading the business forward into the future, and ensuring its growth. Examples of this metamorphosis are starting to appear in the most unlikely of industries.

Innovation ecosystems

You might think that a large steel ship was about as far from digital as you can get, but you’d be wrong. Netherlands-based Damen Shipyards has leveraged technology to transform its business from a traditional shipbuilder to a maritime solutions provider.

Today its vessels, which range from workboats to warships, contain an average of 10,000 sensors linked via the Internet of Things (IoT) to its ‘Connected Vessel Platform’, providing live information on everything from fuel consumption to location.

“We can make our ships smarter and safer. We can give customers more services and create new business models for Damen,” says CIO Aart Rupert. “One-third of the operational cost of a vessel is fuel. As you can imagine, when we provide our customers with this information, we see some nice benefits.”

And new ideas can come from some unexpected quarters, especially if companies create ecosystems. Rupert used his ecosystem to hold a series of hackathons with suppliers.

A team from a paint supplier came up with an algorithm that could monitor and predict the erosion of hull coatings. Paint breakdown causes drag, which increases fuel consumption − so knowing when to repaint saves money.

The new influencers

Companies today enjoy an abundance of data. But, as Rupert and Damen Shipyards have demonstrated, the trick is to harness it for success. Data from its Connected Vessel Platform will be vital to the next generation of autonomous vessels which Damen is already developing.

CIOs such as Forsberg, Dawson and Rupert are leading innovation in their industries. Their success is a tribute to their skills as influencers, persuading their companies of the opportunities technology can open up.

As a result, CIO is also coming to stand for Chief Influence Officer says David Chou, an experienced CIO and technology consultant.  He says “the transformational CIO” has become a key influencer of business strategy and a valued corporate leader in their own right.

It all adds up to a transformation in the role of the CIO and the technology team within the business. Technology used to be a support function. Now it is the business. And that means new horizons for technology leaders.