The Changing Role of the CIO

Michael Day, VP & CIO, Cannery Casino Resorts
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Change is inevitable. Change is upon you now, and more is coming. You cannot prevent it, and you cannot slow it down. Change is like a water faucet that keeps opening wider, with no way to turn it down or off. The luxury of taking it easy and sitting back and relaxing for a while to enjoy the fruits of our most recent project(s) no longer exists for the top level CIO. That is a sad and often frustrating truth for every CIO, but it is the reality of the world we live in. Time marches on and every CIO is aware of the continual exponential explosion in technology innovation. The role of the CIO in successfully navigating their organization through continuous change has never been more challenging and critical.

I have spent the last 28 years of my career leading the technology and information teams of several large organizations. The view and purpose of technology has shifted drastically over that time period, starting as strictly a necessary “cost of business,” moving to a “cost saver” and progressing to an “innovation engine” and “critical revenue generator.” I have witnessed firsthand the changing role of the CIO and what qualities separate the “best from the rest.”

The job description for a CIO from 15 years ago would look very little like that same job description today. The emphasis placed upon technical skills in the past is now replaced by the need to provide strategic guidance, leadership and strong communication skills that have always been expectations at other “C” level positions. Every large organization needs a CIO with those skills, along with equal parts of energy and wisdom. A tall order for certain.

  ​The role of the CIO is expanding, becoming more difficult and more critical  

It is a given that the CIO position focus and challenges can vary by industry and organization size, but there are certain consistencies, regardless. My personal work experience has been spent heavily in the gaming and hospitality industry, building, opening and managing casino and hotel resorts. Technology has drastically changed the gaming and hospitality industry over the past 30 years, driven by the need to keep up with the changing needs and expectations of customers, all while those customers’ own habits and expectations are themselves being continuously changed by available technology. The strong CIO is uniquely positioned and qualified to lead the organization into the rapidly changing future.

In the gaming and hospitality industry, technology continues to be a big part of shaping the future of the industry. Traditional casino-style games are becoming less attractive to a younger demographic that has grown up with social media, multi-player gaming, virtual reality and fantasy sports. Increased competition is forcing every business to be more intelligent with aggregating, studying and understanding their customer data. Many customers are now spending as much, or more, on non-gaming activities as they are on traditional casino gaming. The potential of legalized online real money casino gaming is looming in most states as both a new opportunity and a threat. Securing customer data, credit cards, cash systems and the many sensitive gaming and hospitality systems in an environment we all understand has far too many hackers, phishers and nefarious characters is an ever more challenging requirement.

So, what are the characteristics of a CIO that indicate that they are the right person to lead an organization through this constant change and onward to continued success? There are a number of qualities that are required, but I will list a few of the key things that I would look for if I were assessing or hiring a CIO.

Wisdom: In my opinion, this is the most important quality of a CIO or any leader, and the most difficult to assess.  It determines the effectiveness of all the other qualities. Knowing what to do and what not to do. Knowing when to act or not to act. Knowing how to act and how to react.

Strategy and Vision: A CIO is tasked with setting a technology strategy that will guide the organization successfully into the future. This requires the CIO to have a vision and understanding of what the future will bring in a world where technology is changing at a ridiculously fast pace. This also requires a CIO to thoroughly understand the organization, operations, products, customers and also to remain educated and knowledgeable of emerging technologies. Unless you happen to have a crystal ball that can foretell the future, most organizations will need to rely on their CIO for this guidance.

Calm in the Storm: This is one of my personal favorite characteristics of a top shelf CIO, especially in a world with so much dependence on technology. One of my favorite quotes has always been “when things go bad, don’t go with them.” Our world has created an ever changing “technology storm,” and the CIO that can deliver stability to their organization and work their team through their own cool and calm actions in that environment is going to have success.

Integrity and Drive: Doing the right thing for the right reasons is a must for a CIO. There is a habit that I refer to as turtling (ducking your head back into your shell on any significant decision or path that could potentially put your job at risk) that CIO’s must avoid. In my opinion, turtling it is a death sentence for a CIO’s career and for the business they are a part of. Every CIO comes to this crossroad on projects and/or decisions, and the best move forward with integrity and confidence.

Communication and Buy-In: The most successful and respected CIO’s always seem to be as good at communicating and selling their ideas to the organization as they are at understanding and implementing technology. They spend significant time building support from executives, key staff and project stakeholders that insure the success (or at the very least an all-out effort by everyone involved) of their initiatives. A CIO that cannot communicate well or build consensus is likely to have little success.

Nobody knows exactly what the future holds or where technological changes will take us. What we do know is that technology is changing everything and everyone. The role of the CIO is expanding, becoming more difficult and more critical. As technological change marches on, the CIO holds an important position in leading and guiding the organization’s strategy and direction. 

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