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How the CIO is letting the IT department down

In spite of IT playing a major role in nearly every modern business change the CIO still hasn't managed to convince the board of information technology's strategic role.

Carefully chosen IT systems are key to driving a successful business, but the status of IT chief hasn't kept pace with the rising importance of technology to the enterprise.

When CEOs were asked to name their closest strategic advisor by Gartner in a recent poll, only five per cent said they turn to the CIO, with the majority choosing the CFO to fill this brief. So why are CIOs not afforded the status to match the vital role of IT in determining a business' fortune?

In some respects the CIO is to blame, as tech chiefs are hampered by a belief that because IT is important to the organisation then so is the CIO, according to Alan Mumby, co-leader of the global CIO/CTO group for executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson.

And while IT is core to modern business change, Mumby said, CIOs should not expect that to guarantee them the CEO's ear: "I went to a CIO gathering this last week about the relationships between CIOs and CEOs and the whole debate was pathetic," he said.

"I used to be a CIO in the 1980s and it's still the same arguments about 'Why doesn't the CIO sit on the board?'.

"They're missing the point. The point is as an individual you have to be on top of your game and respected by your peers, in the same way as a HR director and CFO," he said.

CIOs who want a seat on the executive board need to be experts in all the major domains of the business - sales and marketing, HR, finance - and not just IT, Mumby said.

"It's a big ask, but to really get IT on this top table you've got to earn it by being better than the rest of the board, not just looking after the tin.

"That's just facile to even think you'd even get a place on the board that way. It's like saying 'Why isn't the guy who looks after the buildings on the board?', because those are crucial, the business couldn't work without them."

Mumby said that in many businesses IT is not seen as strategic because the CIO is not at the right level or the right kind of person to drive a challenging commercial agenda.

But in some businesses - in spite of the failings of CIOs - IT is starting to be seen as more than just a support function, Mumby said, with corporate innovation labs increasingly attached to IT departments.

"The locus of change now quite often emanates from IT because there is very little business change today that doesn't require IT, and IT at least has the project management office structures and change management skills to deal with it," he said - adding that in many cases however IT is still seen as somewhere where innovation is executed rather than created.

If CIOs are to devote time to driving that business change they need to avoid getting bogged down in their daily responsibilities running corporate IT, said Mumby.

"To do that requires them to escape the day-to-day operational stuff and it takes brave CIOs to hire people who are better than them to handle the day-to-day stuff so they can step up."

TechRepublic recently asked why the debate over the death of the CIO refuses to go away. Perhaps if the CIO did a better job of defining themselves and their department as an agent of change certain IT roles wouldn't be viewed as so expendable.

About

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

10 comments
gevander
gevander

Was this article updated with new information since the first time I saw it 4-6 months ago? There should be a "repeat / retread" disclaimer at the top of repeated articles like this.

gorman.mi
gorman.mi

In addition to the sentiments expressed in this article; it is often understood by a few managers and other senior organizational staff, that the ICT staff represent higher-than-average ability staff. For every role in a given company, an average IT worker is more than capable of slotting in-including managerial roles-ICT innately understand the business processes behind organizational activities, and crucually understand the link between ICT systems and success on every level of operations. How many of us have been presented by petty minded finance seniors that are shambolic in their understandings? Do not underestimate corporate envy, and senior staff keeping ICT senior staff 'At Bay' because they sense the potential ability of this group to weild significant power.

Imprecator
Imprecator

The only reason there is a CIO is so the rest of the board has someone to point the finger at when they blame IT for their own incompetence. Since C-Level Execs think that IT is just PCs (which are about to be obsolete right?), Tablets, SmartPhones and (maybe) Internet Access, they hire accordingly. Try to use technical solutions to political problems and political solutions to technical problems and when it all fails, they blame IT and tell the CIO to shape up and put everything on the cloud or be fired. SInce the CIO they hired is usually a spineless yes-man, he/she will do as told, let the whole thing fall apart and blame it on his/her minions. An incompetent IT department is merely a symptom of a company run by incompetents, that is all.

adrianvaneeden
adrianvaneeden

The best CIO I worked for had his Masters in Commerce and came from business. He got me to build the technical strategy and managed the relationship with the board and exco. He taught me a huge amount about how the CIO should be engaging with business and technology didn't come into it. Talking tech is like the CFO talking about his GL, AR and AP. Nobody cares - they're just more tools used to achieve a desired outcome. This could be efficiency (saving costs), future opportunity (increasing revenue), or improved controls (mitigation of risk). We do this by automating processes, providing and enhancing available management information, and increasing access through new technology but the outcomes must be related to the business. A strong CIO can rarely be a technologist as the personality is rarely a strong fit. Engineers focus on practical application and implementation where business executives look at shareholder value, risk, investment and factors that at face value don't often seem aligned to what is technically seen as the "right" solution. The CIO has to be able to have these conversations in the language the board is used to. A strong business-centric CIO can offer tremendous value to the exec as the role exposes them to each and every function in the business at a level of detail far deeper than any of the other "shared" services. Finance is generally focused on the money, and HR on the people. A value-adding IT department is implementing systems which support the business process, involve much of the staff, codify the business rules, and provide rich information - they often know more about the business than anyone else. But the leaders are often not engaged because they talk operationally. Ask an Operations Manager the same question - they experience the same frustrations - read any Ops textbook, CIO's are not alone. I am a CIO, but my previous job was CTO and my background is technical. I studied Civil Engineering which possibly makes it even worse because I concrete is just not an interestign topic at most business meetings. I acknowledged this weakness years back. I have focused the majority of my recent personal development on non-technical and management-directed areas for the last 10 years. I am currently completing an MBA, have attended coaching and negotiation courses, joined a public speaking group, and spend a lot of time working on my communication skills. I have an introverted personality which does not help with the networking, but if I believe that I can add value to the enterprise, I have to accept that it is not about the business not understanding me, it's about me moulding my behaviour to the business. I draw the line at playing golf though, that is just plain stupid!

Bareng
Bareng

This is a very good article. It really addresses the fundamental origin of the bad perception of IT role in a business enterprise. Most companies view IT as cost centre and not as a vital strategic utility that will give the company a competitive advantage. As the article point out, IT is involve in almost all the function of business. Hence, any operational strategy formulation activity should involve IT personnel and the importance of CIO is second to none, in this regards. I can add that the role and responsibilities of the CIO must be clearly defined and exercised. Otherwise, we will continuously observe CIO being nothing but “company’s technical fire-fighter”. It is true that the IT fraternity is partly to be blame because the current group on CIO do not rise to the occasion. They must find a way of getting involve in all functional operations to guide and enlighten the executive

ApplSecurityGeek
ApplSecurityGeek

When the CEO picks a CIO who is not an IT person and who only sees IT as a cost center, the organization gets the message that IT is not something that can strategically drive the business. When the CEO gets rid of IT execs who came up through the ranks and who understand the value add of IT, the writing is on the wall. That is the situation where I used to work, and it is a blessed relief to be out of such a toxic environment.

nonimportantname
nonimportantname

The article hit on it toward the end; the real respect comes when CIOs are able to escape day-to-day operations (being a firefighter) and begin walking the way of strategy. This is a case of jobs getting in the way of careers or jobs getting in the way of what needs to be done to drive the business forward. It also wouldn't hurt the CIO to introduce innovation management into the fray, and that requires smart team composition (more business-focused developers and IT engineers), organizational development, and leadership.

richord
richord

In most organizations the CIO role was created when the focus started to shift from technology (CTO) to information. However, CIO’s are typically not selected for their skills and capabilities for managing information. Few CIO’s can adequately describe the semantics of data or how ontologies or taxonomies should be deployed. Few CIO’s consider information in the broader context such as verbal and documents and other non-electronic forms. CIO’s think “data” and databases not communications and knowledge. Few CIO’s have experience and training in information. They are primarily technologists. They manage the “T” not the “I” in IT. Career Is Over was coined by others years ago so the debate about the death of the CIO is superfluous.

richord
richord

"I draw the line at playing golf though, that is just plain stupid!" Although I do not play golf, it is a business competency that many have and use to their advantage. Many business discussions occur on the golf course. It’s another channel of communications in business.

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