CIOs are ‘innovation’ officers

Enterprise information technology as we have known it is rapidly becoming obsolete, and the traditional role of the chief information officer is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Just as game-changing technologies continue to fundamentally transform business processes, they also give us the ability to create new products and services that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. Therefore, the CIO’s role must shift from protecting the status quo to embracing new innovative capabilities.

The old way emphasized technology-centricity; the new way emphasizes technology-empowered business strategies. The old way was all about information management; the new way is all about information intelligence. The old way was IT systems management; the new way is platforms that enable new value chains and integrated ecosystems. The old way stressed cost management; the new way prioritizes driving business transformation and accelerating growth.

Today’s world of business is not just changing – it’s transforming. What’s the difference? Change is doing something in an incrementally different way. Transformation is doing something in such a drastically different way that it becomes a qualitative shift, not just quantitative. The move from wax cylinders, to acetate discs, to LPs, to CDs – these were all changes. But the move from CDs to MP3s? Suddenly technology enabled listeners to carry their entire music libraries in their shirt pockets, and digital music players (which also happened to be smartphones containing GPS technology, video and more) had no moving parts, unless you count electrons: That was a transformation.

In the early 1990s, Barnes & Noble superstores changed how we shopped for books. By the mid-1990s, Amazon was transforming how we shopped for books, which then transformed how we shop for everything. As we all know, technology made this transformation possible.


Today, technology-driven transformation is happening all around us. At a large international technology conference a few weeks ago, one of the demonstrations to illustrate game-changing technology involved using an iPad and a high-speed connection to fully control three powerful workstations located in different parts of the country. Using only an iPad wirelessly streaming to a large screen, thousands of people could see what the engineers were seeing and the user could control each workstation as if he were on-site. Doing all of this from an iPad was impossible just a few months ago.

The visual, social, virtual and mobile transformations that are already happening are creating a new golden age of technology-enabled innovation. CIOs should be leading the charge.

So what has enabled the business environment to go from merely changing to transforming? It’s all thanks to three change accelerators: the exponential advances in processing power, bandwidth and storage. I have been tracking their trajectory for 30 years, and they have now entered a predictable new phase that will transform every business process. Based on the technology-enabled trends that are already in place, the next five years will see transformations in how we sell, market, communicate, collaborate, innovate, train and educate. And if you don’t do it, someone else will. In fact, considering all the business processes that are being transformed by technology, nothing is undergoing more of a transformation than the role of the CIO.


The CIO’s traditional role of managing information, IT systems and cost now chiefly encompasses creating new competitive advantage, new products and new services. Traditionally, the CEO was the innovator, but many of today’s CEOs – as well as the rest of the C-suite – are unaware of what is technologically possible now or what will be in the future. CIOs, however, can both access and understand that type of information, which is why they are uniquely positioned to take on the role of chief innovation officer.

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Of course, not all CIOs will embrace their new role. As our environment transforms, human nature is to hunker down and seek comfort. Many will be too busy doing what they have always done. Many will commit themselves to defending the status quo. Why? Because we’re familiar with it. We know how it works. We have an investment in it. It has made a lot of money for us. It got us to where we are today. Therefore, we feel as if we have to preserve it any way we can.

One of a CIO’s additional burdens is the day-to-day nature of the work. He has to maintain the existing system to make sure that it’s working, that there are no breaches, that it’s being upgraded, and so on. After all, the organization must continue to run smoothly throughout the transformation. But if that’s all he’s doing – maintaining existing systems – then his role is tied to the past and his relevance is decreasing every day. Although current and past systems do have to be maintained, a CIO’s new most important role is to drive internal and external innovation. And because innovation is increasingly technology-driven, the CIO is in a perfect position to lead this evolutionary revolution.

The ability to innovate has never been more possible and innovation has never happened faster. In transformational, game-changing times such as these, it’s important to remember: If it can be done, it will be done … and if you don’t do it, someone else will. Likewise, if you don’t change the focus of your CIO role, someone else will.

(Daniel Burrus is the author of six books, including the New York Times best-seller “Flash Foresight,” and the CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advances in all areas of technology and their direct impact on the world of business.)
© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
© The New York Times 2013