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Trends and outlooks: What it takes to be a Chief Innovation Officer

By Eileen Jacob

Over the last several decades, businesses have begun making space for Chief Innovation Officers. As the demand for candidates who can fill this role grows, Berkeley MBA students are increasingly expressing interest in this career trajectory.

The term Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) first surfaced in the book Fourth Generation R&D: Managing Knowledge, Technology, and Innovation in 1998. The same year the term was coined, Google filed for incorporation, and the first MP3 player was released.

The overlap of the new professional designation and the evolution of technology is no coincidence. The creation of the CIO title was a response to the business world’s need to keep pace in a fast-moving, technology-charged marketplace rife with new advancements.

Initially, the title was given to individuals who could create organizational innovation through technology. While a technology background is still a critical characteristic of the modern CIO, the responsibilities have shifted to meet today’s business needs in an ever-evolving world.

What is the makeup of the modern CIO and why is the role a critical component of every business? Continue reading to discover the answers.

Why Chief Innovation Officers are a critical component of the modern business

The pace of conducting business is increasing rapidly. Businesses today can’t relax. Instead, they must release new products at lightning speed. Customers demand products and services faster than ever, causing unique business challenges. On top of that, increased competition means that today’s work might be irrelevant tomorrow if a competing brand beats you to market.

To stay relevant, many companies are putting a hyper-focus on innovation to:

  • Rethink solutions to emerging business problems
  • Enhance products to satisfy ever-changing customer demands
  • Develop cutting-edge ideas that invite change and differentiation
  • Influence management’s perspective to adapt to change quickly

Enabling change in business can be difficult, especially in well-established organizations. These time-tested businesses can fall victim to relying on business practices and processes that cater to short-term goals, creating resistance to innovation that might favorably impact a business in the long-term.

Driving innovation requires time and buy-in from various stakeholders. By delegating a single person as a CIO, it becomes easier to sort through ideas, surface the best ones, and rally support to reduce friction while bringing new projects to market.

What are the Chief Innovation Officer’s duties?

Though CIO is a working title — and can vary from organization to organization — the general outline of the position is roughly defined by the following key functions:

  1. Have a finger on the pulse of the market: First and foremost, CIOs must analyze marketplace trends and disruptions to determine viable opportunities.
  2. Cultivate a space for new ideas to be born: People often assume the CIO is the “idea person” and that’s where his or her role ends. In most cases, this isn’t true. The CIO is responsible for developing ideas raised by employees, too. A successful CIO encourages continued collaboration by providing brainstorming forums like hackathons, training seminars, and internal or external crowdsourcing.
  3. Develop a methodology: Decision-making, critical thinking, and measured risk-taking are all soft skills acquired through MBA programs specializing in innovation and entrepreneurship. They also are components of a CIOs day-to-day job. CIOs must determine which ideas to carry out or kill, and which should be reserved for another day.
  4. Determine the appropriate tools for success: To carry new ideas out, CIOs must identify tools and technology and implement new processes that make change possible.
  5. Manage funding to carry out ideas: Moonshot ideas don’t often have funding to support them. By making connections between organizations through networking, the CIO can create formal agreements that help finance individual projects that don’t fall specifically within the scope of the existing business.
  6. Execute ideas without disruption: CIOs need space to question the status quo while maintaining the trust of key stakeholders. As such, the CIO must be an excellent communicator so he or she can push ideas from the seed stage to the market without the ideas getting killed.

Just this year, UC Berkeley hired its first Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurship Officer (CIEO), Richard Lyons. The goal of Lyons’ new role is to utilize each of these functions highlighted above to illuminate Berkeley’s push toward innovation and entrepreneurship into the community.

What characteristics make a strong Chief Innovation Officer?

Staying true to the roots of the original CIO definition, a strong background in technology is a necessity for CIOs. Innovation springs from technology; for that reason, an emphasis in the following is useful:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Machine learning
  • Cognitive computing
  • Robotic process automation
  • Blockchain technology

However, a background in technology isn’t the only requirement for a strong CIO. Other business skills are required for a CIO to thrive in all areas of his or her job.

Berkeley’s MBA curriculum is a great place to start when it comes to acquiring specific skills that will start you down the path toward the CIO title, for example:

As the role of CIO becomes common-place for many businesses, it will be exciting to see how the role continues to evolve, and how companies customize the position to suit their individual needs.

Ready to learn how to think and act like a CIO? Start with applied innovation courses at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. Apply today.

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Topics: MBA for Execs  |   the job market  |   innovation  |   Career
Eileen Jacob
Eileen was Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals from 2017-2019. She enjoyed meeting prospective students and helping them explore the benefits of an MBA, and hopes these blog posts provide valuable insight into the Berkeley MBA experience.