This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series here: The CIO agenda: The 2023 roadmap for IT leaders.

The pressure is on for CIOs in 2023, experts say, as chief information officers are called upon to drive growth and transformation, not just keep the data center humming and enterprise software running. 

“It’s about ‘show me the money,’” Janelle Hill, chief of research for Gartner’s CIO practice, told VentureBeat. After a decade of investing in digital, she explained, organizations want to know the value of their investments, while at the same time accelerating digital initiatives such as artificial intelligence and hyperautomation — and ensuring security and privacy across an expanding attack surface. 

According to Gartner’s 2023 CIO and Technology Executive Agenda, released in October, CIOs expect IT budgets to increase 5.1% on average this year — lower than the projected 6.5% global inflation rate. That creates a triple squeeze — economic pressure, scarce and expensive talent, and ongoing supply challenges — heightening the desire and urgency to realize time to value.

This special issue from VentureBeat kicks off the new year by tackling these issues head-on. It includes deep dives into how CIOs can impress the board, and stakeholders, by getting the most value from data analytics, cloud platforms and even the metaverse. We’ll also focus on hiring and retaining IT talent to accelerate digital initiatives while building brands, and explore how AI and automation can help achieve sustainability, overcome biases, address supply chain challenges and enforce security through the tech stack. 


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The CIO role has ‘never been more strategic or close to the business’ 

“I remember a time when IT was a fortress — the big IT tank that did all the technology,” recalled Penelope Prett, chief information, data and analytics officer for Accenture. “What’s really been interesting to watch is how fast the role has accelerated as an ombudsman and a catalytic change agent for technology impacting business performance.” 

Those changes were accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Fletcher Previn, SVP and CIO at Cisco. 

“The CIO and the whole IT team, to a large degree, is in the business of meeting unmet needs,” he said. “The pandemic created a sudden, urgent, long list of unmet needs — the CIO was really at the center of what needed to be done for businesses to weather that storm.” 

As a result, he said, the CIO role “has never been more strategic or close to the business.” The CIO is now seen as more of a team leader executing a company’s transformation, rather than just a necessary cost to keep the company’s infrastructure humming.

“It’s a misconception, or at least a miscalculation, to think of the CIO as a kind of traditional back-office role and this expense that you wish you didn’t have,” said Previn. “A good CIO needs to understand agile ways of working devops software development, automation, user experience and design, analytics and data, and then the business objectives. And then, at same time, be able to lead an organization, drive a talent strategy and attract the best people.” 

For Juan Perez, CIO of Salesforce, a key element is establishing “business intimacy” in order to increase the CIO’s relevance and ability to deliver business value to the C-suite and board, among other stakeholders. Business intimacy enables the CIO and their team to drive results and increase productivity and efficiency at scale, because it leads to a greater understanding of business needs, he explained. 

“CIOs have a dotted line to every business leader — including the CEO, CFO, CMO and others — each of whom is being asked to do more with less,” he pointed out. “By closely partnering with key business leaders, CIOs can help prioritize amid budget constraints and deliver the technology needed to increase efficiency, improve results and lower costs.” 

At John Deere, the CIO role has evolved to be a deep influencer and key enabler of an organization’s strategy, said CIO Raj Kalathur. Kalathur detailed the company’s transition from manufacturing heavy machinery to applying data, automation and autonomy to develop new products and services and create more personalized experiences for customers, dealers, suppliers and Deere employees. 

“For example, we published a financial ambition to achieve a 20% operating return on sales for all equipment operations by 2030,” he said. “In support of this ambition, John Deere is advancing our core manufacturing technology stack to unlock significant economic value across our operations. We are positioned to leverage industry-leading technologies (5G connectivity, IoT platforms, digital twin/digital thread) to optimize labor, reduce assets/inventory and improve quality and customer satisfaction.” 

The adaptable CIO

Jane Zhu, CIO of Veritas Technologies, leads a combined organization that includes IT, facility, finance shared service, data analytics and program management functions. These responsibilities, she said, give her a unique opportunity to see how the business functions from end to end and apply that knowledge to make the CIO role more effective.

“I see the role of the CIO as being adaptable and forward-thinking as digital transformation continues to be top-of-mind,” she explained. As many organizations strive to constantly be more efficient, more flexible and therefore more profitable, she added, CIOs must lead the charge in helping companies adapt to advances in technology and the complexities that come along with them, especially in regard to new cloud technologies such as collaboration tools to support an increasingly distributed workforce.

That doesn’t mean that CIOs only care about technology and cannot be people-oriented leaders within an organization, Zhu emphasized. 

“The most successful CIOs are going to be able to balance and collaborate with other members of the C-suite to drive meaningful outcomes for the entire organization,” she said. “This also means that we have a major hand in guiding the IT culture within our organizations, which is especially important to foster given the growing impact of the cyberskills shortage on employees within IT.” 

CIOs turn to AI and automation to deliver immediate value

Forrester Research VP and senior research director Matt Guarini recently predicted that 80% of companies will pivot their innovation efforts “from creativity to resilience.” That is, fewer moonshot investments, and more focus on short-term gains to make firms more productive and adaptive in uncertain times. That means turning to technologies that deliver immediate value, like AI, automation and machine learning

“I think it’s clear that the path to delivering more from our backlog at a higher-quality level, with lower risk and fewer audit findings and so on, is automation, AI and reusing things that we’ve already built,” said Cisco’s Previn. “Automating the entire build, test and deploy stages of what we do is a huge focus, including all the controls.” 

Salesforce’s Perez added that businesses will look for ways to make it easier for employees to get their jobs done. This will include infusing artificial intelligence and automation across every line of business — to save time, and to increase employee satisfaction by automating repetitive tasks to help every team focus on the most impactful work.

“Automation will increasingly become ubiquitous because it reduces the work that humans have to do on repetitive or monotonous tasks, which means more time to offer a better experience for customers and lower stress for internal teams,” he said. “In fact, 79% of automation users say these tools fuel productivity.”

AI can also help increase revenue by delivering deep insights about every individual customer based on past interactions, he explained.  

“For example, financial solutions companies can use Salesforce’s Einstein AI technology to increase sales win rates by simply providing its sales reps with AI-powered insights in real time, or use AI to increase the accuracy of a cash receivables forecast, or enable customer service teams to scale by automatically delivering AI-based product or support recommendations,” he said. 

Cybersecurity and the CIO

Cisco’s Previn recalled that when the pandemic hit, the initial focus was on having enough VPN capacity and operating remotely. But the focus quickly shifted to security. 

“What do we need to do to shore up our security and transform our network?” he said. “The focus became: Clearly this is going to be an enduring way of working — what are the long term consequences of this?” 

That attitude is reflected in a Gartner report that found that two-thirds of respondents said that cyber- and information security would be a top area of increased investment for 2023. As companies look to manage the business risk posed by escalating threats, Gartner forecasts that worldwide information security and risk-management spending by end users will reach $188.3 billion in 2023, up 11.3% from 2022. Gartner estimated that spending on security would grow 7.2% in 2022 compared with 2021.

Overall, CIOs must foster a culture of trust across their organizations to enhance employee and customer experiences by making security seamless and frictionless across people, processes, strategy and platforms, said Milind Wagle, CIO at Equinix. “A thorough security framework ensures that innovation and bold strategies are grounded with the right risk-appetite.” 

The race for tech talent

According to the Gartner report, many CIOs continue to struggle to hire and retain IT talent as they aim to accelerate digital initiatives. However, the survey identified numerous untapped sources of technology talent. For example, only 12% of enterprises use students (through internships and relationships with schools) to help develop technological capabilities and only 23% use gig workers.

“The business is just so incredibly dependent on technology, and everybody’s struggling to get technology talent — they’ve lost talent through the Great Resignation,” said Gartner’s Hill. “Skill areas that are very hot, like cybersecurity, AI, any kind of advanced analytics, even cloud migration — they just can’t find enough people to do that.” 

There may be an opportunity to pick up some talent from the Big Tech layoffs, she said, but added that one of Gartner’s biggest messages to CIOs is to stop using the same conventional techniques everyone else is using to attract talent. 

For example, “Break the barriers that your company artificially imposes that will limit your talent, like one person, one job, one manager,” she said. “If I’m a data scientist working for the CMO and I have a slow period, why can’t I work somewhere else and use my talent elsewhere?”  

Here’s the conclusion: Biggest opportunities for the CIO

Overall, the CIO has a tremendous opportunity, said Equinix’s Wagle, who explained that the CIO role comes with “an extraordinary vantage point of visibility into every single aspect of an entire organization’s operations.”

CIOs can help break down silos, he said, because they can understand what is going on in all divisions of the business. “We can identify where technology can help increase productivity or bring in efficiencies to drive the company’s overall success.” 

Today’s CIO, he emphasized, should “claim their rightful place” in the leadership. “Adopt a strategic partner and in-service mentality,” he said, “to make every other C-suite leader successful.” 

The opportunity right now, added Accenture’s Prett, is what she calls the most “open-minded time in the history of the world” when it comes to technology. 

“People who had previously inflexible stances about what they thought of technology or its use, they had all those paradigms broken during the pandemic,” she said. “They are open to listening to stories that they might not have contemplated before, so the opportunity is to start talking.” 

It’s a moment in time, added Gartner’s Hill, where a CIO can really demonstrate their business executive leadership competency. 

“In 2020, at the start of COVID, there was a need to go [to] remote working practically overnight,” she said. “And boy did the CIO step up; they gained tremendous credibility.” 

But now it’s another moment, she added, when CIOs need to deliver and demonstrate how technology can help the business thrive and grow. 

“Now’s the time to really bring it forward in a business context,” she said. “That’s the biggest opportunity.”

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