What once took years now takes weeks. The fast-pace of technological development, supported by on-demand computing and the consumerisation of IT, means enterprise technology can now be adopted and used more quickly than ever before. So, how long do CIOs need to make their mark on an organisation?

IT strategy cycles traditionally run somewhere between three and five years. That schedule is consistent with tenures in the IT C-suite, with analyst Gartner reporting that the average time a CIO spends in post is four years and four months.

However, contract lengths vary considerably between sectors and nations. The Government Accountability Office, for example, reports the average tenure of government sector CIOs in the US is as low as two years. TechRepublic spoke to IT experts and got five top tips for how CIOs can act strategically in a digital age.

1. Use diversity to act strategically

James Greenman, group IT director at Care UK, is sceptical about the need for CIOs to move jobs about every two years: “Can you really be effective if you only do two years in a CIO role?” he asks.

“I would say your ability to create effective change in such a short timeframe is limited and that’s why I’ve been in my present role for eight years. The buck stops with me. I lead from the front. I have to be able to put my finger in various pies – I have to be strategic and operational.”

Greenman says the successful executives of the future will have a similar multi-faceted approach, being able to transcend multiple IT and business issues. He refers to the Care UK leadership team, where senior stakeholders have a varied background. The chief executive, for example, worked in logistics before his move to healthcare.

“We’ve got bright people together from different sectors,” says Greenman. “We’ve embraced difference to help take the business forwards. Greater value can be generated by embracing diversity.”

2. Balance organisational change with personal ambitions

Phil Corrin, deputy CIO at St Helens & Knowsley Health Informatics, is another IT leader who doubts whether two years in a senior post is enough time for a technology executive to create significant change.

“You need to live through a complete strategy cycle, and often that is at least four to five years,” he says. “Two years, in many organisations, is probably not long enough to force real change.”

However, Corrin does recognise that personal career goals create an added layer of complexity: “People who can inspire others will naturally be ambitious and every good executive is always thinking about the next opportunity, whether that is internal or external,” he says.

“With the right level of investment, a good CIO can create significant levels of change in the right position. And everything depends on legacy – the right people leave good people behind, regardless of how long they’ve been in charge.”

3. Always identify good lieutenants

Linda Herbert, director of IT at The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, also says any CIO working to a limited schedule must ensure good lieutenants are ready and waiting to take up the mantle of technology leadership.

“You can make a very big difference in two years and you can lay good foundations for further change,” she says. “If there’s someone else to hand over to, who’s been party to the original modifications, then a shorter timeframe can work. Putting change in place, and working with someone else, is possible.”

CIOs will go through a cycle of stages, such as a tough settling-in period, a run of challenging targets and a period of reflection. Herbert says every organisation will eventually need to look for fresh input, and the ability to keep leadership timescales contained is dependent on the ability of the CIO to identify clear IT-related business outcomes.

“Every organisation eventually needs someone to come in and identity other areas for change. Two years is a tough timescale to create real change, but you can be targeted if you know what you’ve got to do,” she says.

4. Demonstrate real benefits very quickly

Denis McCauley, director of global technology research at the Economist Intelligence Unit, says the consumerisation of IT means technology executives can now implement change at a faster pace. Such speed means two years might be more than enough time for astute executives to make their mark.

“Digital technology means that things happen so much faster now,” he says. “The pace of change means it is possible for CIOs to create big business transformations quickly.”

McCauley refers to anecdotal EIU evidence that suggests IT implementation times have been slashed over the past two years. Projects that might have taken months can now be completed in weeks, even in the case of large-scale systems such as enterprise resource management.

“If that’s really the case, then maybe two years is more than enough time to start seeing real results,” says McCauley. “But the key to CIO success, rather than quick project implementation, is whether the business is seeing real benefits one year down the line.”

5. Be visible and accept new challenges

Mark Bramwell, CIO at the Wellcome Trust, says two years should be an ample amount of time for IT leaders to make a change. “If you haven’t made a mark by then, you might not be able to justify continuing in your role,” he says.

Bramwell took the top IT position in 2009 and says he delivered his first three-year strategy in two years. “You have to be visible and you have to make significant changes in the first 100 days, whether that’s in terms of implementation or engagement. As a modern CIO, you simply always have to be on the front foot,” he says.

Bramwell says IT leaders must support the wider organisation in its attempts to make crucial decisions. He says IT really is now part of the business and good CIOs have a huge opportunity.

“The CIO role can become cyclical unless you have new challenges,” says Bramwell. “Now is an exciting time to be a CIO because of the speed of change. The modern challenges, such as cloud, consumerisation and social media, still feel fresh.”