With files from Pragya Sehgal


There was a time when chief information officers were focused exclusively on maintaining the server room and the network connecting staff across the organization.

But according to six CIOs from across Canada, spanning both the public and private sectors, the most successful CIOs are now the ones who have positioned themselves as business visionaries, not just a technical expert.

“My role takes more of a centre stage presence with other teams in the organization, and I find myself contributing to the overall function of the business,” explained Alan Fong, chief technology officer of Dealer-FX, a service technology provider for a long list of known-brand car manufacturers.

Fong was one of six participants in a roundtable discussion held earlier this month with IT World Canada’s own CIO Jim Love and managing editor Alex Coop.

 

Read more about this year’s Ingenious award winners and finalists here


Fong’s statement was echoed by other participants, and as the discussion went further down CIO rabbit hole, it became increasingly obvious that technology, and whether or not it can solve a specific problem, isn’t what most of today’s CIOs focus on today.

While at least one global survey last year suggested that changes in technology – not global warming or political unrest – represent the main challenge facing tomorrow’s business leaders, Darryl Vleeming, the chief information officer for Aurora Cannabis, said that technology was much harder to understand and adopt 15 to 20 years ago.

“When I look at things now, we’re at the point where we’re deploying new systems across the business in days. It used to take months,” he explained. “Looking at Aurora – growing the organization from 300 to 3,000 people in less than two years, that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. I was able to deploy dozens of new systems quickly because of the cloud. It’s much more scalable, and as a result, I don’t have to worry about things I used to worry about in the past.”

Now, the challenge is understanding what to adopt, and why, added Helen Wetherley Knight, the CIO of the Calgary Drop-In Centre.

“I often see bad systems resulting from key stakeholders turning difficult decisions over to technologists. This usually happens because the stakeholders lose interest in the conversation as the details become too granular, but junior tech analysts are not equipped to make those business decisions,” she said.

Unboxing AI

Artificial intelligence is one of the most sought after capabilities today and despite Canada’s burgeoning AI ecosystems and research hubs, finding the right talent is one of Dana Sanderson’s greatest challenges today.

“I started from the ground floor in IT. Zero experience. But I always had that business sensibility, and over the years — especially as [University of Prince Edward Island] CIO — I’ve worked hard to build bridges between tech and business,” the CIO for the University of Prince Edward Island told IT World Canada. “But finding AI experts in PEI is a huge challenge.”

The 2019 MIT Sloan Management Review, conducted in collaboration with BCG Hendersen Institute, revealed that organizations in which the CIO is responsible for all AI initiatives have seen value in only about 17 per cent of cases as compared to 34 per cent for organizations in which AI is housed directly under the CEO.

Moreover, when the AI efforts of a company are led by other C-level executives, by a chief digital officer for example, AI-related value is generated at an even greater rate at 37 per cent. 

While the data is U.S.-specific, it’s safe to say CIOs in Canada face similar challenges, said Peyman Parsi, chief client delivery officer for global technology services at TMX Group.

“One of the challenges we have with the concept of AI is the fact that people are calling all of the algorithms out there as AI,” he said. “Trying to find the right business case that helps us move forward, replacing existing technology can’t do what we need it to, is a big challenge for us.”

All of the participants agreed that organizations that view AI through a narrow technology lens are not likely to consider the transformational methods and processes needed to obtain sustained AI-related business value. Don’t treat AI primarily as a technology opportunity – consider it as a strategic initiative instead, pushing the need for new organizational behaviours.