10 Technology Leaders on the CIO role in 2021

The role of the CIO is shifting like never before which makes adaptable, change-oriented technology leaders truly indispensable.


“We have to do things effectively and efficiently to keep our organizations safe, we need to be invisible, we need to be agile.” – Santosh Kudva, Chief Data Officer & CIO, GE

No matter the product you produce, the industry you’re situated in, or the values you align yourself to, in 2021 every company is a tech company. This fact, as well as the negative influence of Covid-19, are the two things that all businesses share in the 21st century and to this effect, the Chief Information Officer has become an increasingly vital figure within the modern workplace. CIOs are agents of change, gatekeepers to innovation and increasingly, one of the most important means of adapting to change in a post-covid world and realizing the future for information technology trends.

It’s a lofty responsibility and, as such, finding adaptable, change-oriented technology leaders like Christopher Davis of The Tile Shop and Sunil Joshi of the IBM Academy of Technology has quickly become crucial to organizations and their continued operational potential. Keeping the business on the path to fruitful IT transformation has never been quite so challenging and, to that effect, here are 10 senior technology leaders on what true innovation in the digital-first world looks like, and how the shifting role of the CIO is forcing technology leaders to become the change that they want to see in their business at this time.

1. Digital Transformation and the role of the CIO

Nithin Sethi, Visteon - The Customer and the role of the CIO

In the wake of change, information technology leaders need to transform and align to construct a digital backbone that optimizes the value chain and reaps the maximum benefit for the organization. To aid this, it’s vital that businesses effectively align their internal processes to build a digital transformation program that works for staff and customers.

Working as the Global Director of IT for Digital Transformation at Visteon, Nithin Sethi helps to lead key global business & IT transformation initiatives, pivotally working to maximize synergies through the integration of technologies, strategy, culture, and work practices to drive change that delivers business value for Visteon. Whilst in this role, he has pinned down the keys to transformation, stating, “from an overall organization perspective there are four mantras for digital transformation.”

  1. Innovation Thinking: This refers to a culture which recognizes and aims to innovate, in Nitin’s words, “While we are all busy with keeping our lights on, we need to make sure that we are running a bimodal organization, you have to have a set of people who are focusing on innovation.”
  2. Inquisitiveness: Curiosity is an invaluable quality for all staff in IT, and we should encourage experimentation, as Nitin put it, “second is inquisitiveness out there, which is a developer’s field to learn and practice technology and get that relevance into the business process.”
  3. Urgency: Striking whilst the iron is hot is vital in the IT transformation process, not just in business, as Nitin states, “I think we have all seen the digital transformation getting accelerated 5 to 6 times during Covid and we are all struggling with the adoption of remote work. There has to be a sense of urgency for certain innovation to happen.”
  4. IT & Business Amalgamation: Where digital transformation is concerned, collaboration is key, and its success is borne out of insight across the business. As Nitin said, “the final focus is going to be on IT and Business Amalgamation. It’s very important that in any innovation project you have the right camaraderie to go about and make sure that you are successful.”

Out of the key mantras that Nitin defined, it’s clear that effective technological transformation is dependent on a change in mindset. Digital transformation has long since been thought of as an IT issue, but it isn’t – at least not entirely – digital transformation is a business issue, and as such it requires the expertise and input of c-level executives across enterprises to ensure its success. Failure to control the digital transformation narrative in this way will only lead to failure.

2. Staff and the role of the CIO

Christopher Davis, The Tile Shop - Staff and the role of the CIO

It’s human nature to be resistant or cautious when presented with change – so when the IT function of an organization suggests one, we must ask, how could this effect our personnel? Challenges will always transcend departments, skill sets, and even continents; however, the one unifying factor that the CIO must consider is the fact that all employees are ultimately a human behind a screen.

For Christopher Davis, Chief Information Officer for The Tile Shop this is a central concern and in his keynote discussion at GDS’ CIO Insight Summit, he sought to address this challenge and how leaders might surpass it. Christopher, like most CIOs, has a vested interest in easing the issue as it’s something which effects his own role and his goal to guarantee IT transformation for The Tile Shop via innovative solutions across retail, customer service, ecommerce, and corporate functions.

Conventionally speaking, technology leaders are often viewed as deliverers rather than facilitators. They’re the leader that helps bring in new technologies to drive innovation and this is where their goals stop. In 2021, empowering the human behind the screen has been pushed up the list of CIO priorities and it’s something Davis acknowledges, “as a CIO, my job is to help partner with the rest of the organization to make sure that it has the capabilities that it needs while pushing forward”.

To deliver to this expectation though, Davis has had to embrace new ways of thinking, particularly when it comes to staff, as Davis explained, in the role of the CIO, “technology is the easy part, people are the hard part”. However, this doesn’t mean that senior leaders can’t cater to the human behind the screen, as Davis adds, “we’ve been forced to do things differently and it’s caused people to realize that they can’t do things the same way, that opens a door to allow us to then try new things”.

Ease should be the focus for CIOs at this time, in streamlining processes and providing solutions for staff, leaders can engender a culture that helps employees to solve their issues at pace. If CIOs take anything from current times, Davis suggests that “it’s not the organization that’s going to make change, it’s a group of individuals, you have to connect with all of them,” catering to this will allow any CIO to prepare and help those behind the screen, but how might they then help customers too?

3. The Customer and the role of the CIO

Dara Meath, Conair​, Pete Gibson, Friendly’s​, Muddu Sudhaka, Aisera - The Customer and the role of the CIO

Too often, efforts to digitally transform occur within specific silos across the business; this not only slows potential implementation, but it also means that crucial functions aren’t aligned to the rapidly changing needs of customers. The question then, is what happens if you start with the customer first and let your whole digital transformation strategy emanate from the experience they enjoy?

This was the question that Dara Meath, CIO of Conair​, Pete Gibson CIO for Friendly’s​ and Muddu Sudhaka, CEO for Aisera​ gathered to tackle earlier this year. As part of their discussion, the panel of leaders delved into best practices on how to keep the customer happy whilst also prioritizing IT transformation, cost, and necessity. What became clear was that a customer-centric mindset should be considered a core responsibility in the role of the CIO at this time.

IT has always sat at the cutting edge, but not just on technology, as Pete Gibson established, IT is “very much on the frontline of the customer and the guest experience” and to deliver to transformation goals, increasingly we’re seeing executives in IT pivot to select a strategy built out from their customer. As Pete added, “from a technology point of view, you never have enough funds or resources to solve all the sins in the world”, instead, it’s about taking your teams and revising their functions, as “every one of them needs to be aligned to the customer”.

It’s also crucial that we reassess the term ‘customer’ and all that that encompasses, as Dara stated when defining her role,” we’re trying to understand what the customer is looking for, however, those customers are not only those external to us but also internal”. The thinking around consumers needs to shift – we’re all consumers in the digital-first world and as such, we should be asking our teams about what they expect and value in a transaction, we can then design our systems around it, “it’s crucial that you partner with your internal teams, as if you don’t partner success is unlikely.”

Conversely, Muddu Sadhaka suggested that to better cater to customers, “the key is not about throwing more bodies at the problem. If you want to compete in the brave new world, you have to leverage technology.” Specifically, Muddu stressed the benefit of technologies that allow us to gather and direct data towards solutions. The customer-centric approach is delivered through technology but is permitted by data and as Muddu added, “if you don’t start the journey with the data today, you’ll always be kicking the can down the street.” How then must CIOs approach data?

4. Data and the role of the CIO

Loreal Lynch, Tableau and Sarah Love, Mulesoft - Data and the role of the CIO

Data and the role of the CIO are inextricably linked as ultimately, every digital transformation is a data transformation. In 2021, data is the most valuable business commodity and consequently, there is no application or optimization of technology that sits outside of its influence, as such, CIOs must assess and reassess their data programs and strategy to guarantee success. This formed the basis of the discussion between Loreal Lynch of Tableau and Sarah Love of Mulesoft earlier this year.

Working as Vice President of Product Marketing for Tableau & Senior Product Marketing Manager for Mulesoft, both Loreal and Sarah are focused on helping organizations to unleash the power of their data. Specifically, they’re helping businesses to get to a point where they can integrate their data to unlock potential, make better decisions at pace and build data-driven experiences with ease. Only data can help us to achieve this and consequently, forming a valid approach is crucial.

Beginning their keynote with a discussion around the importance of data in 2021, Sarah established the importance of data by asserting the following, “data is the key to understanding your customers. If you want to transform your relationships with customers, it all starts with data.” Echoing the sentiments of Muddu above, Sarah suggests that customer-centricity can only be met by way of data, but equally as Dara inferred, it’s also pivotal for internal issues, adding that data is “key to solving your businesses’ biggest challenges and achieving many of your business priorities”.

It’s clear then that data reaches – or at least has the potential to reach – every sector of the modern business, but even today, enterprises struggle to realize an approach or process that works to their requirements, as Sarah suggested “the average enterprise has 900 applications, but only one third of them are connected”. Two thirds of the tools we use in business today are not data efficient, and this reveals the wider catch-22 present in data; smaller organizations often find data management tools costly, whilst inversely, large businesses struggle to pull their disparate data together legibly.

It is up to the CIO to ease data fears, they must lead so that their staff can follow and as Loreal said, “leaders need to set the vision, but empowering your workforce to make decisions based on that vision and based on the data that supports that vision, that’s ultimately what’s going to accelerate your business growth”. According to a recent report, 40% of businesses in US, Canada, UK, Germany and France are still without a Chief Data Officer and until we fill these posts the CIO must be the one to assert data adoption. Whether it’s in tech, hires or increasingly, cloud migration, the time is now

5. Data Governance & the role of the CIO

Santosh Kudva, GE Power - Data Governance & the role of the CIO

Data is evidently a critical piece of the business jigsaw, but it is as nothing if we do not ensure that that information is gathered and used effectively and efficiently by our teams. Therefore, instituting a robust data governance policy can help guarantee the safety of the information pertaining to our people, customers, and organization and all without adding new layers of bureaucracy. It was on this subject that Santosh Kudva spoke to our delegation to help them best explore their options.

Sitting as the Chief Data Officer & CIO for Finance and HR at GE Power, Santosh is responsible for providing data-driven solutions that help grow the business and deliver to GE Power’s business outcomes. Santosh is invested in the activities that allow him to drive productivity and manage risk best and to this effect, he has written publicly on the value of data governance and the delicate balancing act of implementation therein. In his own words, data governance must be ‘just right’.

Attempting to implement more versatile data governance procedures first requires a company that is culturally willing to accept them and according to Santosh, it’s no easy feat as “there is always a hesitancy to relinquish control from an I.T. standpoint”. In the workplace, many of us are inclined to take the path of least resistance, especially when it’s a question of altering business-as-usual, but as Santosh added, data governance will ultimately be too costly to ignore, “when I look at the amount of value we are leaving on the table, it’s huge if we don’t fix data quality at the source”.

2020 proved – if proof were needed – that data is simultaneously the most valuable but most underused commodity in big business. For those who’ve capitalized the results have been substantial, so much so that coming out of the pandemic, “data became a critical component for success.” Efficiency is the name of the game for businesses in 2021 and no company can ever be said to be truly efficient; data cleanliness is essential at this time, as Santosh put it, “in a resource constrained environment, doing things efficiently becomes very important”.

Our businesses must be adaptable and versatile and irrefutable data will be key to this. To retrieve that data though, we need data governance to improve our processes, as “we have to do things effectively and efficiently to keep our organizations safe, we need to be invisible, we need to be agile”. CIOs must drive data governance policy across the enterprise to encourage agility but also, to help cancel out the noise surrounding data, as Santosh concluded, “if we can get governance out of the way of the business for them to drive outcomes and their insights that is what we should do.”

6. Cloud and the role of the CIO

Sunil Joshi, IBM Academy of Technology & Steven Visconti, IBM - Cloud and the role of a CIO

In today’s world, there’s a common thread connecting almost every organization across all industries and regions: uncertainty. Disruptive change is happening faster, customer demands are harder to define and security threats are growing exponentially. The question then is, how can businesses digitally transform with cloud migration, while also ensuring they have a secure environment where customers’ data isn’t compromised?

For Sunil Joshi, Chief Technology Officer for the IBM Academy of Technology & Steven Visconti, a Public Cloud Sales Leader at IBM, this conundrum forms the focus of their day-to-day duties. Their solution? A secure and open hybrid cloud architecture which magnifies the benefits of cloud whilst also simplifying IT operations, data access, interoperability, security, and more.

First and foremost, when beginning the journey from conventional cloud models towards a hybrid system it’s necessary to ascertain why such a IT transformation is necessary. As Sunil established, “why are people trying to transform? It’s mainly because we are trying to move to customer-centric thinking”. As with much of the role of the CIO, it all comes back to the customer, “when we say customer-centric thinking, what does that mean? It means accelerated access to data and decisions, whilst providing better multi-channel user experiences.”

By combining our on-premises infrastructure with private cloud services and a public cloud, we can better situtate our businesses for customer-centric thinking. However, as we continue to realize the limits of single and multi-cloud models we can expect the vast majority of businesses to shift gears, Sunil agreed stating, “organically, more and more enterprises are going to evolve into consuming best of breed solution as a service capabilities”. Hybrid cloud could become the norm to meet these needs, but as Steven outlined, “you want to extend your model to where it makes sense for you”.

Employing technology for technology’s sake is a cardinal sin for the CIO and to this end, we must be careful before embarking on cloud migration projects of any kind, as Sunil cautioned, “look holistically, it’s not just about applications, it’s your platform, it’s your infrastructure and it’s your application engineering”. If hybrid cloud adds value with all of this in mind then we should consider widening the scope of our tools, as Steven adds, “we need to be aware of the new methodologies, over the traditional things that we grew up on”, by doing so we can define the best future for cloud.

Post-Summit Reporting –

GDS’ CIO Insight summits bring renowned senior information technology executives together to connect and provide insights. If you are a leader in this space, don’t miss out on the opportunity to engage with other Chief Executive, VP and Director Level Leaders who are working to drive change both now and into the future.

Not simply comprised of the keynotes we host, summits also provide interactive Q&A and polls as well as breakout sessions, roundtables and 1-1 business meetings with executives. Across each of these, we asked leading IT executives and providers about their top spending focuses and at what stage in the process they were in implementing these transformation initiatives, the results of which can be seen below.

As established above, data is the most valuable currency that a business possesses, if it weren’t so priceless there wouldn’t be nearly as many ransomware attacks against big business. On this matter, we’ve seen and can see major investment in data management platforms at this time, with an average of $15.7 million promised to help house, process, and utilize data it’s clear that companies want to better understand their customer and competitor to gain a tactical edge in their markets.

It goes to show just how seriously organizations are taking their data that this outstepped concerns across both digital transformation and cloud service requirements but as we’ve established, data is the means by which innovation projects of all kinds can be most effectively delivered. There is no such thing as total data efficiency but by investing in these systems it’s clear that most CIOs are aiming for 99.9%.

CIO April & June 2021 – In Review

Every company is a tech company. This is as true now as it was ten years ago, but thanks to the ongoing business climate in the post-pandemic, the scope of the role that the Chief Information Officer holds has shifted dramatically. The role of the CIO has shifted and they no longer just a technologist, they are – or at least must be – experts in data, HR, operations, and all that this encompasses. Consequently, without them, an organization would cease to function.

Digital transformation is the name of the game and will be for as long as we require technologies to get the job done, and as we’ve learned from the words of our executive speakers, CIOs across sectors and industries are already well situated to respond to change, whether expected or not. CIOs proved that they were vital to our ability to successfully navigate the challenges we faced during the pandemic, acting as the last line of defence in the face of the black swan event. This is the true role of the CIO and in this way, they have become the change that they wish to see in the business, it’s time now for us to follow their lead.

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