Does the central role of information in every organisation make the CIO utterly indispensable or merely a spectator in the democratisation of data? Mark Samuels reports.
It is one of the oldest gags in IT leadership. Rather than chief information officer, CIO actually stands for career is over. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The role of the CIO is actually very much alive. Successful IT leaders are eschewing the traditional management of IT operations and instead concentrating on the strategic use of information for the benefit of the business.
Such a strategic role is crucial because of the continued rise of collaborative systems, unstructured data and on-demand technology. Now, more than ever before, the CIO truly is the executive responsible for information - and information is the lifeblood of the successful business in this collaborative and on-demand world.
Crucial CIO role at the executive level
Does this new central role of information mean CIOs no longer need to worry about their next career move? Why should the CIO want to be the CEO when they already have a crucial role to play at the executive level?
"There's never been a better time for CIOs to re-engage with the business and influence the wider strategy," says David Smith, chief executive of Global Futures and Foresight and a business expert with more than 30 years of senior management experience. But it has not always been so simple for the CIO.
Smith's view is that the journey towards a strategic role for the CIO has been uncomfortable. In the 1980s and 1990s, IT was an ivory tower and no one in an executive position outside IT challenged the views of the manager responsible for technology.
The gloss fell away at the turn of the millennium, after Y2K and the dot-com downturn, where IT was seen as a costly barrier to innovation. Those events left serious scar tissue, says Smith. Other senior executives questioned the role of the CIO and wondered whether they could really be part of the board. The answer has come with the rise of information-intensive computing.
"More than other line-of-business operations, technology involves a massive amount of change and that level of internal transformation is only set to continue," says Smith. "Technology is driven by new discovery. The business needs someone to focus on those implications and understand the potential influence of IT, and that person is the CIO."
Capitalising on technology leadership role
There is, then, a tremendous opportunity for the CIO to explain how things can be done differently because of technology. Jo Stanford, group IT director at hotel and hospitality group De Vere, agrees and suggests the right individual can really get their teeth into the technology leadership role.
"Don't sit there fretting," she says to her peers. "If you've built your IT organisational structure, you're contributing to the business and creating recognition - you should be happy. At the boardroom level, you have to talk in the business' language and not techno speak. Don't question what people are saying but why they are doing it."
But that kind of positive approach is not for everyone. Stanford recognises that a large number of CIOs are behind the curve and do not necessarily have...
Mark Samuels is a business journalist and editor at IT leadership organisation CIO Connect. He has written for various organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Guardian Government Computing and Times Higher Education.