The changing role of the CIO from a Finnish perspective


More than ever before, technology is changing the way companies and government agencies are managed – and the rate of change is picking up. The ability of the chief information officer (CIO) to anticipate, identify and acquire the appropriate ICT capabilities is a key ingredient in the success or failure of organisations in countries around the world, and Finland is no exception. 

The core role of the CIO in Finland continues to be about ensuring an organisation has the ICT services it needs. But the CIO’s area of ​​responsibility is quickly expanding beyond purely operational functions. 

“The CIO role is becoming more of a business leadership role rather than just a master of technology,” says Jarkko Levasma, Finland’s government CIO. “We’re living in an increasingly digitised society, and our leaders need to know how to apply technology the right ways.”

Levasma works in the Ministry of Finance, where his department is responsible for overall guidance and leadership for ICT in the public sector. This guidance and leadership extends to central and local government, and everything in-between – and is accomplished through influence, rather than direct control.

“We don’t have direct control over agencies and municipalities, who are very independent in their digitisation,” he says. “But we do have ways of influencing them, because we provide funding and information.”

This position gives Levasma a bird’s eye view on how IT leaders operate in the public sector throughout Finland. He also has first-hand experience in engineering and management roles in the private sector. 

The CIO role is changing very fast,” says Levasma. “One of the interesting things is to think about what is included in the term ‘CIO’. It used to have a certain meaning, but more recently, other roles have come up, such as chief digitisation officer, chief data officer and chief innovation officer. Many organisations no longer see the need for separate titles like these. After all, the responsibilities of these roles are already included in the CIO job function.”

Big changes ahead

Levasma believes other big changes are coming, too – and they are of a different nature entirely. In his view, we have come to the end of an era in digitisation, having done all of the big things that need to be done for an organisation, and using ICT to support the basic services and processes. Now, government, business and IT leaders need to focus on creating ecosystems of different organisations to provide better services for customers and citizens. Within the ecosystem information can flow from organisation to organisation, so customers don’t have to be asked for data all the time. The different players in an ecosystem can get the information from one another in a digital format.  

“This means we can also automate things for the customer – for example, you don’t have to apply for a certain service from a government agency,” says Levasma. “We probably know it’s you and that you need that service. We can help the citizen if we get the right information at the right time from some other player, but this requires a cooperative ecosystem.”

In this new era, CIOs will no longer focus just on their own organisations and customers. They will have to look at the big picture and see themselves as part of an ecosystem. This represents a big change in the CIO role, as well as in digitisation in general. 

In some cases, the data being exchanged is open, which makes the process much easier. But for many reasons, not all data can be open. It might be personal data that is protected by data privacy regulation. In this case, the information needs to be anonymised. Or it may be somebody else’s property, in which case, some sort of payment scheme needs to be devised for partners to exchange information. 

“Of course, this concept of data exchange in an ecosystem is not just limited to Finland,” says Levasma. “A lot of new EU legislation is coming out now to address how these exchanges will work across Europe.”

Much of the new legislation was developed in the context of The European strategy for data, which was published in February 2020 by the European Commission. Part of the strategy is to increase the use of industrial data, without breaking any European rules around data protection. All this information-sharing places more responsibility on the shoulders of CIOs across the European Union.

The CIO career path in Finland 

Even though the scope of the role continues to expand, so far, the path to becoming a CIO hasn’t changed much. It still requires a lot of technical knowledge and experience. Levasma, for example, got a master’s degree in software engineering before starting his career in a research organisation. He then went on to develop software in the private sector for TietoEnator, where he moved into a series of management positions. Since 2009, he has worked in the public sector in different direct roles, including CIO. 

While the way into the CIO role hasn’t changed much, what has changed is how well a person does once they become one. Those who do the best are aligned with the overall organisational strategy, and this means working with business leaders in the private sector, and agency heads in the public sector. 

As managing partner of Momentous, a company that provides executive recruitment and HR consulting to big Finnish and international companies operating in Finland, Mika Rossi sees the changes in the CIO career path every day. 

“Typically, the CIO has an ICT degree and starts out in a few specialist roles,” he says. “Then they become head of a unit and so on. The standard career path remains much the same. However, career paths can differ in how motivated a person is to work with business leaders. A person who is motivated along those lines usually gets bigger roles.”  

“Because CIOs are now doing much of the buying or subscribing, they need to be good at finance – maybe through studies or maybe through experience,” says Rossi. 

Remote and hybrid working makes the CIO role more challenging, because the CIO has to provide the digital tools to enable the new capabilities. But in many ways, remote and hybrid working is more of an advantage than a disadvantage for Finnish CIOs. It allows them to hire people who live far away from the main office. Finland is a sparsely populated country, so it helps a lot to be able to hire someone from Northern Finland rather than only taking people who live in the capital area, where it is quite expensive. 

“Personally, I have not seen any real problems with remote or hybrid working,” says Levasma. “The employees know what they can do from a home office. That’s true at least with the experts I’m used to working with. They are quite good at evaluating what kind of jobs they can do remotely and what they need to do in the office.”

Rossi says there is another global trend that impacts the CIO role: an increasing number of security threats and a growing level of sophistication. “It’s generally estimated that the situation will continue for a long time, which points to the continuing importance of information security in enterprises,” he says.

To meet this challenge, CIOs need to either learn more about cyber security themselves, or delegate that task to somebody on their staff. Sometimes, the person is given the title chief information security officer, who usually reports to the CIO. 

As to where the CIO reports in an organisation, that depends largely on the industry – and on the nature of the company. In cases where a company’s main line of revenue comes from providing technology services, the CIO is likely to report directly to the CEO. Or there may be a separate chief technology officer (CTO) role to manage the technology that enables different revenue streams – in which case, the CIO may report to the CTO, or vice-versa. 

Some CEOs want to ensure digital transformation happens more quickly and more thoroughly. In these cases, the CIO might report directly to the CEO. “Different organisations have different dynamics,” says Rossi. “It’s only natural that in different organisations, the CIO has different positions in the management hierarchy, sometimes reporting to the CEO, and sometimes to the COO [chief operating officer] or CFO [chief financial officer].”

Where one goes from the CIO role is also changing, with the growing importance of technology. There are examples of CIOs becoming the director general or CEO of the organisation, especially in organisations that are particularly data processing-oriented. For example, Markku Heikura, director general of the Finnish Tax Administration, is an engineer by training, and has a long history of CIO roles. 

Another good move from the CIO role is to go into consulting later in a career. But to become a credible advisor, an IT leader first needs to gain a lot of good experience as a CIO, and develop a good reputation among their peers. A more common career path is to become CIO of progressively bigger organisations until retirement. Of course, in Finland, there isn’t as much headroom as in other countries. The most ambitious IT leaders often look outside the country. 

Recruiting IT talent

With all the changes in technology – and with the growing need for cyber security – CIOs need more expertise in their staff. The workforce in Finland is sophisticated, and people generally keep up with change. But now, IT leaders need people who are ahead of the curve on the latest technology.

“It’s increasingly challenging to recruit talent, especially in areas where there is a shift in skill sets,” says Levasma. “It has always been difficult to find ICT architects, at least good ones. Security experts are also hard to find. And then of course there’s cloud artificial intelligence, and it’s really hard to get specialists in this kind of trendy area.”

As is true everywhere else in the world, the skill set required for technology roles is changing fast in Finland. But Finland has additional challenges that come with a small and stagnant population. Schools are struggling to keep up with the pace of change and the demands of industry.

This leaves IT leaders with three options. They can convince people with special expertise to emigrate to Finland, where the cold climate is a big turnoff; they can hire people who work from a home office outside the country; or they can compete with other companies for the small number of candidates on the market. 

Rossi says the best organisations give people an exciting place to work. They keep up with change. In general, good companies find good candidates.

“You must be quite flexible, because we now have several years of young people entering the work market from universities during or after the pandemic,” he says. “They don’t understand the old normal. They only know the new normal. If you want to keep them and flourish with them, you must listen to them.”


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