Call it what you please—Head of IT, Chief Technology Officer, or Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) – the leader of a company’s IT systems has seen their role change dramatically in recent years due to the rise of digital technologies. Artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data, and cybersecurity have all upended organizations’ internal processes and business models, forcing shifts in a CIO’s focus and priorities.

While the CIO’s renewed importance is both obvious and well-documented, questions remain unaddressed:

  • How have these technologies changed the role and importance of a CIO in his or her organization?
  • Are these changes understood both inside and outside of companies?
  • How are CIOs themselves coping with all this change?

That’s why we conducted the first global study that puts the CIO in Focus.

Our study reveals that CIOs have emerged from a behind-the-scenes, back-office role as IT experts to become strategic leaders. Thanks to digital transformation, their technology choices are now critical to a company’s business model and the user experience it offers both online and in the real world. Our survey demonstrates that the new responsibilities of this role weigh heavily on them.

More broadly, CIOs have become the new guardians of trust for organizations and companies, with over half of CIOs reporting that they are now expected to step up to the plate and take on a public-facing role. The reasons are not difficult to track down: Strong cybersecurity, data privacy and regulatory compliance are now the benchmarks of corporate reputation, making the CIO responsible for the foundational pillars of trust in a business. For our study, we spoke to CIOs in the U.S., UK, China and Singapore. Without exception, vast majorities of them – in the 80 and 90 percent range – described their role as crucial for building trust internally and externally in their business. Yet our study also finds that CIOs feel deeply misunderstood by both the world around them and even those they work with.

To complicate matters further, the most surprising finding of our report found that even CIOs struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation and regulation. This sentiment proves especially true for more tenured CIOs, as 71 percent of executives who have been in the job for 10 years or more think the pace of innovation in IT/technology is their industry is too fast, compared to a little over half of CIOs who have fewer than five years’ experience in their role.

Innovation is not the only thing that a more experienced CIO worries about more than a less tenured CIO; the study highlights just how important a CIO’s tenure is when they describe their priorities. A CIO with fewer than five years of experience in their role prioritizes cybersecurity and innovation, while a CIO with 10 or more years of experience puts a higher priority on efficiency and reputation management. In addition, a CIO’s level of experience also has a significant impact on the dynamics of trust with vendors and suppliers – less tenured CIOs are more likely to trust based on emotional connections while more experienced CIO’s base their trust on thought leadership.

Our study has uncovered many fascinating insights, from the differences in the CIO role across various countries, to their reading and information consumption habits, all the way to how they relax from the stress of the job. Mostly importantly, the report highlights the fact that CIOs need a lot of help—whether it comes from their own companies internally communicating the importance and scope of their role or from technology vendors aiding the context and impact of innovation – especially given the fact that enterprise and government procurement cycles are often out of sync with the speed of transformation.

For me, the findings of our CIO in Focus report make for fascinating reading. They highlight how important it is to identify the right approach and channels when communicating with CIOs, and I believe will prove critically relevant to Edelman’s Technology workstreams around the world. If the CIO holds the key to a company’s trust, their job cannot evolve in obscurity.

Sanjay Nair is global chair, Technology.