For years, there has been speculation that the role of the chief operating officer was being phased out in favor of a chief technology officer or chief information officer. Long known as the “CEO’s right hand,” COOs have held a wide range of responsibilities for the operational side of the business. But as more shareholders expect CEOs to take responsibility for performance, many have delved more deeply into day-to-day operations. That has often resulted in the COO being left in a state of flux, or worse.

According to one study of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies, only 36% employ a COO. This is down from 48% of the companies on those same lists in 2000. At the same time, in many other companies, the role of the COO is transforming and changing. While automation and technology may mean that much of the minutiae of daily operations can be handled with less hands-on interaction, today’s COO is playing a visionary role that looks toward developing the company’s future and implementing its values.

The fact is, the COO’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. However, the role continues to change, and healthcare COOs must be aware of and engaged with technological evolution and digitization to remain relevant and on the cutting edge of corporate development.

Rather than relying on the CTO and CIO to bring the technological perspective to the C-suite, the COO can drive innovation through technical knowledge and expertise.

A skilled COO can introduce and envision company policies on managing big data, overseeing cybersecurity, considering a corporate approach to privacy and looking toward emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and computer vision. In fact, Gartner estimates that by 2025, most traditional computing will give way to advanced architectures. They include not only the aforementioned options but also speech recognition.

COO-driven innovation in healthcare

Healthcare COOs have played an important role in driving digitization and transforming their companies. Here at The Allure Group, for instance, I have long recognized that technology is crucial to skilled nursing facilities’ future, a vision I share with our founder.

That has resulted in a network of SNFs that has always been on the cutting edge, offering such tech as remote patient monitoring or robotics to aid in residents’ rehabilitation. Many of Allure’s innovations predated the coronavirus pandemic but have proven invaluable since the outbreak began. They include the use of tablets placed at the bedside of all 1,400 residents across Allure’s six facilities. Initially used for entertainment, the tablets enabled residents to communicate with loved ones when facilities were locked down by government officials.

Also crucial was a hand-held device given to patients upon discharge. It allows them to keep in touch with healthcare professionals — and those professionals to keep tabs on the patients.

Such innovation is just one example of what savvy COOs can bring to their companies. The key is partnering with sales, marketing and IT from the beginning of initiatives to make sure best practices are implemented and followed. That results in a high-performing organization.

Driving forward digitalization

Digitalization and technological innovation aren’t just about developing a product, initiative or service and then tacking on a technology component at the end. On the contrary, COOs can envision how thoroughgoing digital transformation can keep their companies on the cutting edge, driving improved value and increasing customer satisfaction.

Companies that focus on innovation from the beginning are leading the pack, while those that are adding on IT solutions at the end may still be playing catch-up. Here again, a technologically focused and skilled COO can make all the difference.

COOs may offer new perspectives about advanced processing technologies that will change the way most industries — including healthcare — do business. This will require not only greater resources for storage and data but also present challenges in how providers deal with privacy concerns, social issues and public interest matters, especially as they are themselves increasingly under scrutiny in how they respond to hot topics and how they handle their social responsibilities given the vast power and knowledge inherent to big data.

Keeping a finger on the pulse

The COVID-19 pandemic has pointed to the importance of innovation. Many companies that specialize in creating in-person encounters have had to rethink digital options that move beyond easy answers. Augmented reality and virtual reality, digital entertainment and the Internet of Things  have been crucial to the transition. 

Visionary COOs have much to bring their organizations in the years and decades to come, not only in terms of their awareness of the inside operations of a company but in how those operations affect and are viewed by potential clients, partners and the world. An innovative COO can create policies and drive decisions that enable their facilities to forge ahead in uncharted space by focusing on strategy, technical innovation and social impact.  

Melissa Powell is COO of The Allure Group, a network of six New York City-based skilled nursing facilities.