What is a Chief Information Officer (CIO)?

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What is a Chief information Officer and What Do They Actually Do?

With the ubiquitous use of powerful and scalable computer systems in small, medium and large enterprises, reliance on technology has made it imperative for a senior-level executive to lead, manage and strategically plan the implementation, maintenance, merging, upgrading, and day-to-day use of IT systems to better the corporate bottom line. Ultimately, the above tasks are typically carried out by a Chief Information Officer. A Chief Information Officer (CIO) of an organization is the highest, senior-level IT officer of an enterprise with the core responsibility of overseeing and running Information Technology (IT) infrastructures and systems within the business. CIOs often report directly to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), but may also report to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or Chief Operating Officer (COO) as well. CIOs collaborate with other senior-level officers in order to ensure that different corporate systems work together smoothly and efficiently, and that all corporate silos that are reliant on technology are able to work optimally during the day-to-day operations with efficient workflows.

In working with other high-level executives, CIOs work not only to ensure that IT systems are being implemented correctly (to optimize the efficacy of daily business operations), but also to develop strategies and to manage programs that will help to innovate by determining what IT systems to use, how to upgrade legacy systems to scale with the organization’s growing needs, and how IT can be used as a foundational platform for helping an enterprise meet all of its goals. With the advent of data science and data scientists, CIOs also work greatly with data analytics, Big Data, Business Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence, etc. and thus provide dashboards, reports and analytics software suites to help other executives craft strategies based on business data and metrics. Specifically, CIOs often plan and implement Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software and suites, along with Cloud systems, Enterprise Automation, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS), IT strategic differentiators (unique technological systems which separate the business from its competitors and are targeted at specific demographics), and even Cybersecurity infrastructures. 

The CIO Position is One of High Level Leadership

Ultimately, CIOs work to strategize the appropriate and efficient use of technology at every point of an enterprise’s workflows (making IT a daily revenue generator) as opposed to relegating IT to being a tactical cost center that is used as an as-needed solution to problems as they arise. CIOs also obtain industry data on best practices that can help executives determine which business models and corporate initiatives are likely to succeed when IT systems are implemented and efficiently used according to an IT strategy (which is usually drawn up by the CIO). Whenever issues or problems arise on the way to meeting organizational goals, CIOs also apply technological solutions where applicable, and detail exactly how new or upgraded IT systems can create a more efficient and productive business environment.

In addition to the above, CIOs – as the C-suite executives over Information Technology systems – work closely with Program Managers, implement Merger & Acquisition (M&A) strategies, develop multi-year innovation and IT plans based on new systems on the market, ensure that disaster and recovery plans are drawn out to ensure business continuity, guarantee that technology partners are appropriate for the company, certify that the organization is compliant with all data security regulations, and ensure that IT professionals are skilled, trained and working efficiently with the IT systems that have been implemented. To this end, CIOs play a crucial role in helping to determine the strategic direction that a company will take to ultimately fulfill the enterprise’s goals, and thus work very closely with other C-level executives, including CFOs, COOs, CSOs (Chief Security Officers), CMOs (Chief Marketing Offices), and the CEO. According to the 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey, a great number of CIOs report directly to the CEO and/or attend board meetings – the number of which is dependent on the size of the organization. In smaller businesses, more CIOs report directly to the CEO, while in larger enterprises, a smaller number of CIOs report to the CEO.

According to the 2017 survey, 17-45 percent of IT leaders indicated that they report directly to the CEO, while 45-72 percent have attended board meetings. These numbers indicate that enterprises often view CIOs as crucial strategic officers, and view digital strategies/IT as being a significant factor in affecting their bottom line. Thus, due to having such a crucial role in enterprises, surveys indicate that CIOs will ultimately lead to greater revenue growth amongst businesses. According to a survey of 131 CIOs in 2016 by the firm Korn/Ferry International, 84 percent of CIOs believed that their role in organizations was viewed by the CEO and Board as more of a revenue generator than a cost center, due to the fact that the correct implementation of technology can directly better the bottom line on a daily basis and thus directly increase profits.

The Difference Between Management and Leadership

When discussing the nature of a CIO’s role in an enterprise, it is important to note the difference between management and leadership tasks that a CIO may engage in. While a CIO is both an IT manager and leader, the nature of the two categories of tasks is important to differentiate. While management is associated with delegating tasks, minimizing risk and ensuring that techs are working efficiently to increase the bottom line in the short-term, leadership is associated with establishing long-term strategies that other C-level executives agree with. In addition to above, leadership tasks are commonly associated with the creation of innovative ideas that can lead a business in a different direction, and also with the establishment of corporate partnerships to aid in profitable growth in the future. While managers often look at the day-to-day workflows (the short-term), leaders look to the future (the long-term). When it comes to leadership, CIOs often work as Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) to plan the use of innovative IT systems that can alter the future of an enterprise for the better.

Managing Technology

Enterprises need powerful, scalable IT systems that can be managed and used efficiently on a day-to-day basis. Thus, one of the core responsibilities of a CIO is to manage the use of IT systems, including CRM, ERP, HRIS, Cloud systems, and other enterprise technologies. To this end, CIOs delegate tasks to engineers, organize the processes associated with IT upgrades/maintenance, sets goals for the implementation and use of systems according to a detailed IT strategic plan, and provides guidance to employees to ensure that inter-silo communications and workflows remain efficient. CIOs also guide the upgrading of legacy systems, the merging of IT systems, the patching/maintenance of systems, and the security of enterprise-wide IT infrastructures.

Managing and Leading Technology Focused Staff

One of the most important roles of a CIO is to guide, direct and delegate tasks to technical staff, to ensure the maintenance and optimal performance of IT systems, all of which undergird corporate operations and processes. CIOs also lead engineers and techs to ensure that they are trained, skilled, responsive, and are operating efficiently, such that when problems arise, they will be able to find a solution in a timely manner.

The History of the CIO Role

As computing systems have become universal in many corporate offices around the world, and businesses have become more reliant on technology infrastructures, the role of the CIO came into prominence to lead and manage the use of IT systems. The specific role of the Chief Information Officer was first defined in 1981 by the former Senior Vice-President of the Bank of Boston and a former MIT professor at the School of Management, William R. Synnott and William H. Gruber, respectively. Initially, CIOs were needed as a bridge between IT professionals and business professionals, by providing guidance, insights, management, and leadership on how to leverage ICT (Information and Communications Technology) frameworks to minimize risks and optimize procedural corporate operations.

The Roles and Responsibilities of a CIO

CIOs have many critical roles in organizations in almost every industry, ranging from health industries, to business organizations, to military organizations, etc. With the increase of IT system proliferation and their adoption by enterprises, CIOs have acquired more broad roles and have expanded past the initial role of the Chief Information Officer. To that end, the overarching role of the CIO has often been fragmented into subsets of the initial CIO role, resulting in other C-level roles such as the CISO, CDO, CTO, etc. That said, the roles and responsibilities of CIOs has changed drastically over the years, and with the invention of new technologies (e.g. Internet of Things), increased digitization, and an ever-increasing threat of cyber attacks, those roles are continually in a state of flux. According to the 2018 Gartner CIO Agenda survey at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2017, 3,160 CIOs from 98 countries across all industries indicated that their changing roles would largely comprise:

  • Change Leadership
  • Talent Development
  • Innovation Management
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) implementation
  • Cybersecurity (Digital Security) management
  • Internet of Things (IoT) implementation

According to the survey, regarding the latter roles above, CIO respondents ranked Artificial Intelligence, Digital Security and the Internet of Things as the most difficult technologies to implement into enterprises, mostly because such new technologies require new skills and specialized personnel.

That said, previously – before the current trend of increased digital transformations reflected in the responsibilities of CIOs – the core priorities and roles of CIOs were largely focused on Analytics/Business Intelligence, Collaboration Technologies, Legacy Modernization, IT Management/Strategy and IT Policy, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Digital Security, and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

Regarding the latter, ERPs are enterprise-level, all-in-one software suites and systems for managing day-to-day workflows, corporate procedures and operations, etc. and for analyzing, storing and utilizing business data and metrics via a database management system. ERPs often use integrated suites of applications or modules associated with many of the above CIO priorities.

CIOs also implement Business frameworks in association with developing long-term IT strategies, and often use strategic planning systems such as the StratOp (Paterson) process to ensure that corporate strategies and goals are better aligned to daily enterprise processes and workflows.

Chief Information Security Officer

Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs), which are often considered a subset of the CIO role, are senior, C-level corporate executives whose core tasks are to develop, strategize and implement information security systems and infrastructures that protect the integrity of enterprise-data, and to manage and maintain the security of all corporate strategies, processes, operations and goals to ensure that all physical and digital data is secure. Such executives also ensure that an enterprise-wide IT security plan is written out, and that the enterprise is compliant with all data security regulations, such as PCI DSS, HIPAA, etc. 

Maintaining the Existing Information Technology Systems

One of the core tasks of a CIO is to manage the maintenance, patching, updating and/or upgrading of existing IT systems in an enterprise, whether that be (for example) the maintenance of enterprise-wide databases, the patching of servers, or the upgrading of legacy applications to a newer system. If systems break down or are unable to scale to the growing needs of an organization, then the CIO manages the maintenance and/or upgrading of systems to match the enterprise’s needs, vision and goals.

Aligning the Business Needs with the IT Capabilities

Per above, the CIO primarily develops strategies and plans on how to implement and use IT systems to better the bottom line of a business, both in the short term and in the long term. To this end, the CIO aligns the enterprise’s goals, business model, marketing strategies, and even targeted audience with appropriate technologies, which includes the use of strategic differentiators and specific ERPs/systems that will help the business meet such goals. Thus, a very pivotal part of a CIOs role is ensuring that IT systems (e.g. ERP) are scalable and appropriate for the size of an enterprise (and for the size of the IT team), and that the IT systems will continue to maintain their efficiency as the company grows, whether it be for a hyper-growth enterprise or not. 

What Would the Standard Job Description for a CIO Look Like?

CIOs require great IT skills along with needing to have a deep understanding of how businesses operate. Additionally, CIOs need to have experience as project managers and also have great interpersonal “soft” skills. Hence, some CIOs are hired from the business side of IT industries (e.g. MBAs and/or those with a degree in Management), as skills associated with corporate strategic planning and understanding the trends of the business market often take precedence over technical skills. CIOs traditionally have been individuals with a great deal of understanding and/or experience working with information systems, including having a deep understanding of networking, software engineering, cloud computing, information security, data science, and general information technology.

That said, a standard job description for a CIO would include management and leadership tasks associated with Information Technology applications and infrastructures, and would include tasks/roles associated with program management, application development, IT operations and service desk, data analysis, managing IT system upgrades/updates, securing all physical and digital enterprise data, writing short-term and long-term IT strategies and policies, delegating tasks to engineers to ensure optimal IT processes, planning for business continuity in the event of a disaster, handling Mergers & Acquisitions, and more. Due to the very broad role of the modern CIO position, a typical CIO job description may include more responsibilities – or fewer responsibilities – than the standard description noted above.

The CIO Job Role Has Evolved and Fragmented Over Time

As has been noted before, the initial CIO role has changed over the years as additional IT infrastructures have been developed and enterprises have come to rely on technology in new ways. The tasks of a CIO have expanded and broadened, such that the initial role has splintered and fragmented into numerous sub-roles that often overlap with the responsibilities of a CIO. Additionally, the role of the CIO has evolved in numerous ways, resulting in newer corporate positions that focus on more specific aspects of an enterprise’s IT infrastructure. That said, while a major subset of the CIO role is the Chief Data Officer (CDO) position – and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) position can be thought of as the counterpart position of the CIO role – the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) role is an evolution of the CIO position with a focus on innovation and digital transformation. It is also important to note that, before the CIO role existed, there was the Director of IT role. As the director of IT role evolved into the modern CIO role, it is crucial to note how the two roles differ.

Difference Between a CIO and a CTO

The CIO and CTO roles are most often confused since many of the associations with a CIO seem similar with the roles of a CTO at first glance. However, there are several key differences between the two positions: while a CIO focuses on managing and optimizing IT systems internally to create more efficient workflows and corporate processes – and thus ultimately bettering the bottom line of the enterprise – CTO management tasks focus externally on customers in association with technology. CTOs essentially manage the technologies associated with enterprise products which external customers utilize, and even develop new technologies, or implement new systems (e.g. social media systems, smart chips, IoT sensors) that can offer novel services or products to specific demographics. CTOs also develop strategies associated with products in order to increase the enterprise’s top line (revenue). Essentially, a CTO can be thought of as a chief strategic engineer/technologist, while a CIO is a chief IT/business strategist and manager.

The Difference Between a CIO and a CDO

While a CIO tends to focus more on management, leadership and overseeing of data operations to better the company’s bottom line, Chief Data Officers focus more on actual strategic data analysis and data management, collation, parsing and storage of actual streams of business data. Essentially, CIOs oversee the data system while CDOs deal with the actual data, thus while a CIOs role is more broad, the data-tasks associated with the CDO role is more specific and focused. CDOs help to turn business data into actionable insights via reports and complex data analysis, which is used by executives to plan novel strategies for the future of the business.

Another CDO, the Chief Digital Officer, has become a popular title in recent years. This role is very similar to the CIO, but with an increased emphasis on innovation and digital transformation of the enterprise. Due to the transformational nature of CDOs, these roles are sometimes temporary. Additionally, often the CDO will have a deeper customer-centric or marketing focus than traditional CIOs. Traditionally, part of the responsibility of a Chief Information Officer was to address several aspects of an enterprise’s business operations that CDOs now address and specifically focus on, including digital transformation, innovation, customer focus, etc. However, as the responsibilities of CIOs expanded over the years, the CDO came to focus on the above areas while the CIO focused on managing and overseeing other parts of the business infrastructure. It is important to note, however, that an efficient CIO often focuses on corporate innovation and digital transformation as well, such that the Chief Digital Officer role is often regarded as being an unnecessary addition due to being one and same as the CIO position, without the need for both.

The Difference Between a CIO and the Director of IT

The head/director of IT is a title very closely related to the CIO role. However, there are several significant differences between the two positions. The director of IT position is a not a C-suite position, and while the director of IT reports to the CIO, they both manage technological infrastructures in two very different ways. While CIOs strategize the use of IT systems over the long-term in order to better an enterprise’s bottom line and increase operating efficiency, the director of IT manages the daily operation, and corporate use, of IT systems for the purpose of tactically solving business issues as they arise. 


The CIO is a crucial position in any organization or business. The leadership and management of IT departments and systems plays a large part in ultimately bettering both the bottom and top lines of an enterprise. From overseeing daily IT operations, to managing all IT systems and writing IT strategic plans/policies, an effective CIO can be the difference between a successful business and an unsuccessful one. The Chief Information Officer has a very special role that is needed more in this modern day as enterprises come to rely on technology to fulfill their goals.