CXO

Armchair IT experts musn't drown out the CIO

Is the organ grinder in danger of being overpowered by the monkeys?

As staff outside the IT department demand a greater say in how their company uses technology, there's a danger the CIO's voice won't be heard, says silicon.com's Nick Heath.

What do a CIO and a football manager have in common? Both are accountable to a team of people who think they know how to do their job.

Technology's pervasive role in modern life has bred an army of armchair IT experts, bursting with opinions on what's wrong with their workplace computer and why their corporate smartphone sucks.

IT is not the remote and inaccessible domain it was 20 years ago, when the IT chief decided what could and couldn't be done with technology, and other executives were too disinterested or intimidated to question their judgement.

As the rest of the business comes to appreciate the benefits of IT, decisions about technology are increasingly being made outside the IT department, and the CIO is left to try and reconcile the competing demands from the growing number of voices telling them what to do.

Take the consumerisation of IT. Many CIOs appear resigned to having to let staff use their own smartphones and PCs at work, despite the horrible mess of security problems it could cause.

No CIO wants to be perceived as a naysayer, holding back technology-led transformation but IT leaders have to walk a fine line, because if a project they back goes wrong it is likely to come back on them.

And the hectoring directed at the CIO doesn't stop with complaints about the hardware. Today it is far easier for people outside the tech department to understand how technology can benefit the business, whether it is using social media to improve CRM or creating self-service HR portals online for staff.

Now that non-techies understand more about IT's potential, and don't just see it as boxes and wires, they increasingly want a say in the company's technology decisions.

The "computer says no" argument won't cut it with staff any more, Man Group CIO Mike Wright recently told silicon.com, adding that tech-savvy execs are now in a position to "find a supplier who can" when it comes to IT.

Wright was upbeat about the changing relationship between IT and the rest of the business, saying IT's increased accessibility is generating a healthy level of debate and interest in what technology can do.

Debate is one thing but isn't it patronising to presume that amateurs know better than the trained professionals and that CIOs should accept the premise that what the user wants, the user gets - as appears to be the case with the consumerisation of IT?

For example, just because I believe that using Dropbox will make me more productive, doesn't mean I understand the SSL protocols or other corporate policies that using the service might require.

And isn't there also a danger of there being too many cooks in the IT kitchen? That with so many people haranguing the IT department it will become impossible to meet their competing demands - for example, when an office worker wants 24/7 access to their files on their smartphone but the execs want to minimise the risk of a security breach.

Of course, the only reason IT exists is to serve the business but when the balance of power shifts too far and the monkeys, not the organ grinder, are running the show then the time has come to step back.

Once responsibility for technology decisions passes outside the IT department there is a risk that decisions will be taken without full appreciation of the longer-term implications - be they cost, security or other repercussions.

Better alignment between business and IT is beneficial to the organisation as a whole, as is giving the CIO more of a stake in setting overall company strategy.

But as business and technology decisions are increasingly intertwined, and a chorus of non-techies want to have a say on matters that would have been left up to IT in the past, it is important that the CIO's voice is not drowned out.

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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