Board-level debate: There's a great opportunity for CIOs to re-engage with the business and influence the wider strategy

There’s a great opportunity for CIOs to re-engage with the business and influence the wider strategyPhoto: Shutterstock

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…

 

…an understanding of what the business needs. Many IT leaders, for a start, are promoted through the operational ranks.

Becoming a strategy-focused CIO, never mind ever becoming the CEO, can be an unintentional end point. Take one of the world’s most senior IT leaders, Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby: “I was reluctant because I hadn’t aspired to be a CIO,” she says of her rise to the top technology job at the networking giant. She has, however, loved the position.

“If you go back three years, IT held a very different position in the business to the one it holds now. Cisco chief executive John Chambers believed the job needed to concentrate on transformation and business change, and he believed focus made me a good candidate,” she says.

CIOs’ complex employment aspirations

Like Jacoby, Salford University CIO Derek Drury says personal employment aspirations are often more complex than having a simple desire from day one to become a top executive. “Careers don’t work like that,” he says. “You find stuff you like to do and then you either move on because you’re bored or because you have skills that other organisations want.”

So, what about the next step? Would Drury like to become a chief executive? “Well, maybe,” he says, once again reinforcing the complex nature of career paths. “My current desire is to do this job as well as I possibly can.”

People, says Drury, get too hooked on the significance of job titles. What he does know is that a good CIO should have more than enough on their plate. Any organisation that doesn’t think IT is at its core will be heading for a very hard fall, and a CIO who stops understanding what the business wants is finished.

“If you’re truly strategic, your role is safe – you’ll be in place to form the decisions on behalf of the business,” reflects Drury. “Some peers are too hooked on cloud outsourcing and internal development. Bits of the organisation will fit to some of these models, so be flexible.”

Avoid concept of fixed career paths and titles

Roger Newman, senior vice president at Mahindra Satyam, also picks up on the need to be flexible and – like some of the earlier commentators – suggests a need to avoid the idea of fixed career paths and job titles.

“The role definitions of many senior executives are changing, too,” he says, referring to other C-level executives. “Roles are morphing. Everyone needs to understand IT and everyone needs to challenge what the business is doing. There’s a morphing of skills because everyone is suddenly an expert in IT.”

What emerges from the analysis is a complex picture of how the successful CIO has to have increasingly deep business expertise. However, rather than be scared, senior IT leaders must exploit the opportunity rather than worry about their next move.

“CIO is a wonderful role,” says Nancy Knowlton, chief executive of technology specialist Smart. “IT leaders will have to prioritise the highest value concerns. In such circumstances, CIOs can either implement the strategy themselves or wait until the CEO makes a choice.”

The opportunity to push business change through technology is in the IT leader’s hands. Rather than their career being over, the CIO’s influence across the information-intensive organisation is only really just beginning.