A CIO for 2030: The Rise of the Chief Impact Officer

Mar 25, 2021 | Blog

Earlier this week the world was swept by news of Prince Harry’s appointment as Chief Impact Officer (CIO) for BetterUp, a start-up founded in 2013 to prove a “people experience platform” that delivers services such as mental health support.

The timing is important.

Today began the two-day SDG Global Festival of Action, which leads with the hashtag #turnitaround (for the people and planet), as the United Nations (UN) campaigns to raise awareness of and increase participation in efforts to meet its 2030 targets for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Festival aims to find “new ways to inspire, mobilize and connect people and organizations to take action on the SDGs” – and has a crucial role to play given the analysis in last June’s UN SDG report that stated “the world was not on track (to meet the SDGs in 2030) even before the pandemic erupted.” The challenge was again highlighted earlier this month during the 34th meeting of UN-Water, which concluded that progress towards SDG-6 (clean water and sanitation for all) was similarly “off-track”.

Meanwhile, universities in the UK are in the final week of working on their submissions to the REF (Research Excellence Framework).

As one of the three national assessment frameworks worldwide that place a significant focus on impact in order to determine funding of institutions – the others are in Australia and Hong Kong – the REF is carried out in 7-year cycles across the UK.

Prior to the inaugural REF exercise in 2014 that replaced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), research impact was not a significant factor in the grading of entries. However in addition to environmental sustainability and outputs such as webinars and exhibitions, universities must consider impact as an inextricable element of any REF submission – as it now accounts for 25% of the total assessment.

Over in Hong Kong, universities eagerly await the announcement in June of the results of their own Research Assessment Exercise from last year, carried out annually by the University Grants Committee (UGC). Although the 2020 edition was Hong Kong’s fifth RAE, it was the first to include impact as one of the criteria for success.

Given the decreasing proximity to the 2030 SDG deadline, this increased global focus on research impact is not only understandable but utterly essential.

At its heart, research impact refers to the significance and reach of research, especially beyond academia. This can amount to cultural, economic, environmental and social impact; it can also include influence on policy making, legal considerations and industry developments. It is a concept that allows researchers to show the wider value of their work, which can often be poorly understood outside of immediate circles.

Consequently the rise of the Impact Officer job role has become increasingly common in research institutions throughout countries that utilise national assessment frameworks. Impact Officers help to embed understanding and consideration of research impact into organisational culture and processes while becoming experts on the different kinds of impact and wider-world contexts.

In this context, the appointment of Prince Harry into a private start-up business – with no less than a C-level impact position – is a significantly positive indicator of the growing recognition of impact beyond academia and represents a powerful step forward for the world towards sustainability.

Modern boards are typically saturated by CxOs titles, with different businesses ascribing wildly different meanings to the same acronym. Is the CSO a Chief Scientific Officer, Chief Sales Officer, Chief Security Officer or Chief Sustainability Officer (a title associated more with CSR than specifically impact)? Does the author mean CxO or Chief Experience Officer (CXO)?

Until recently, the CIO position has remained solely the domain of the Chief Information Officer – but this is no longer the case. Nor is the CISO title restricted to the Chief Information Security Officer – businesses now advertise for Chief Impact and Strategy Officer, incorporating impact as a core strategic consideration of the organisation. This growing focus, and the enormous publicity created by BetterUp’s new hire, should help to nudge impact towards the mainstream.

This matters because an understanding of impact and its many different facets will play a pivotal role in achieving the UN SDGs by 2030.

On 21st April, Vertigo Ventures will support Times Higher Education’s (THE) exclusive reveal of its 2021 Impact Rankings. Unlike in the case of THE’s flagship publication, the annual World University Rankings, entries into the Impact Rankings are evaluated purely by how well they are able to demonstrate different kinds of impact.

Importantly, the Impact Rankings relate to each of the UN’s SDGs, including an overall holistic ranking while creating a clear correlation between research efforts and real-world positive impacts towards each of the goals. This allows certain institutions to perform extremely well, and receive appropriate recognition, with regards to the particular SDGs they are focused on.

But the world will not achieve the UN’s SDG targets through academia alone – which is why introducing the Impact Officer role outside of universities, especially at the highest level of business, is a necessity.

If impact holds the key to SDG success, then increasing collaboration between those in and out of academia is critical to achieving impact potential. Individuals and organisations need to adopt new ways of collaborating to identify where they can add value, and how the impact of their shared work is helping to progress the SDGs.

Once these tools are more widely available then areas that can benefit from particular types of attention can be addressed by individuals and organisations united across the globe towards a common goal. And it will be the responsibility of the new CIO to ensure these collaborations are prioritised as 2030 edges closer.