The new CIO

I was talking to some IT managers a few days ago about the future role of IT. Now, much has been written over the years about the role of senior IT managers. In fact, my colleague, Dr. Robina Chatham, did some research a few years ago on the changing role of the CIO. The argument still goes on. So what’s new?

CIOs are seated firmly at the center of an organization and see everything. They have a better view of the overall end-to-end functioning of the business than anyone else, including the CEO. All the interactions between departments, all the handoffs between processes, all data transactions are firmly in the line of sight of the CIO. When it comes to integrating the processes of the organization, the CIO is the orchestra leader. So why do we have this insecurity about the future of our role? Do marketing and sales managers ask themselves if they will be needed in the future? I suspect not – certainly not the ones I have worked with. They are rarely encumbered with self-doubt.

CIOs have delivered huge business improvements through the organization. Almost all of the innovations in business have information technology at the heart. So, the CIO is also a pioneer of innovation. Few innovations happen without technology innovation, either directly, as in the creation of a new technology product, or indirectly, as in the creation of software applications to enable to sale and delivery of new products. The CIO, as the owner of the technology world, knows more than anyone about this. Other board members may have interactions with technology—the chief marketing officer with the company’s digital online presence and the CFO with the ERP systems integration. But no one except the CIO has the end-to-end view.

Of course, things are not quite as simple as that – there are some real dangers lunking. And even though the role of the CIO is as important as ever, it does require some new skills. In the days of mainframes, the IT department was the only game in town. Systems, particularly for large organizations, were written in house. The IT department could be quite autocratic and arrogant (and usually was), insisting on particular solutions because they met the often arbitrary standards of the department. Things progressed with off-the-shelf systems, but IT still had to be involved to install the software because they had the keys of the data center.

Then things moved on again. A bit like the privatization of PTTs around the world, IT suddenly found that they weren’t the only answer. Software as a service (SaaS) gave business users leverage, a weapon, if you like, to choose the solution that best fit their needs, rather than the one that conformed closest to IT standards. Those CIOs who had not looked after their users were more vulnerable to this than those who had. Shadow IT became an increasing problem. The role of the CIO hadn’t gone away. It is just that their behavior in not responding to user priorities meant that stakeholders started looking for their answers elsewhere, usually by working with willing and responsive vendors.

Choosing SaaS solutions because IT is not responsive is very short-term thinking. The end to end integration of processes suffers greatly when companies go outside for point solutions without involving IT, the keepers of data models, system resilience, and so on. The point is this; the CIO needs to ensure that IT is properly aligned to the business, now and at all times. It needs to respond to what users want. The new CIO needs to be at the heart of all technical selections. Ian Cox in his book Disrupt IT, Ian Cox suggests that as part of this role, the CIO moves toward being a services broker, rather than a services provider.

About two years ago, we created a role play on our Excellent IT Management course where one of the departments had gone off and bought an SaaS solution without involving IT. Every time we have run the role-play, at least one delegate in the group tells us that this could have been written about their organization.

The truth is that authority and the privilege of position are no longer sufficient for the CIO to retain authority. The new CIO needs to be a salesperson, a diplomat, and a pioneer—in short, the champion of IT.

[1] Ian Cox, Disrupt IT, Amazon Media, 2014

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