I just wrapped up speaking at a European CIO conference in Athens, Greece, and felt mixed emotions after fielding questions from the audience. They shared the same challenges as their counterparts in other countries, so it was refreshing to hear that my work was relevant to CIOs the world over. On the other hand, it is somewhat disheartening to hear debates on alignment and IT strategy that have barely evolved from what IT leadership has been talking about for the last decade.
Pondering this question while staring out over the Aegean sea after the conference, I believe that the CIO role continues to suffer from a multiple personality disorder of sorts. At one moment, CIOs must readily and capably discuss and consider the strategic direction of their company and, seconds later, consider a complex technical problem. Some CIO job advertisements laughably demonstrate this dual role, in the same sentence asking for a “strategic partner” and “extensive Cobol knowledge.” It is as if the CFO were called on to make journal entries after discussing the latest M&A activity, or the COO running down to the shop floor to spend a few hours on the drill press after pondering a complex rethink of the global supply chain.
Since this challenge is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, CIOs must learn to deal with the split nature of their role, ideally minimizing the time they spend wearing their “technician hat” if they truly want to play a part in the strategic direction of their company. To that end, I suggest the following:
Re-source utility functions
If you find yourself spending more than 20% of your time as CIO on utility functions like basic network infrastructure, connectivity, commodity applications (e-mail, productivity software, etc.), you are doing something wrong. The basic ticket to entry to the “strategy ride” is a functional infrastructure, that at this point in IT’s maturity is benchmarked against the light switch on the wall and is expected to “just work” when the switch is turned.
Ensure that your utility functions are lean and mean and capable of solving the vast majority of utility-related problems internally rather than raising them to the CIO. Outsourcing is one obvious solution, with benefits and drawbacks that have been discussed frequently, but insourcing is an alternative that you should not overlook. Let a trusted and capable leader run your help desk or network ops as an independent “company within the company,” meeting a set of metrics and otherwise being given free reign in managing the group. You’ll develop talent and get utility functions off your plate.
Don’t be afraid to be bold
Many CIOs take on bold technical challenges but shy away from making bold organizational decisions or managing their people differently from the corporate norm. You’re the head of a knowledge-based entity with the company, and how you manage the people that create and nurture that knowledge is critical. Don’t be afraid to partner with HR and implement anything from a unique rewards program, to formal mentoring, to “tours of duty” that allow people outside IT to swap roles with someone inside IT. At the end of the day, implementing a bold new organizational structure may be more effective, have a more immediate benefit, and produce a better end result at a lower cost than being bold on an untested and expensive piece of technical infrastructure.
Be a tech ambassador, not an evangelist
The most admired CIOs I’ve worked with are strong technicians and are equally adept at explaining technology in understandable business terms. Rather than speaking in jargon to their peers in the C-suite, they send out two- or three-paragraph bulletins that explain emerging technologies, from cloud computing to iPads, in easily understandable terms that clearly denote benefits, costs, and potential impact to the company, the market, and the company’s customers.
Bring the right hat
Despite the above tips, there are some times when the CIO is expected to be the head tech. Discussions about corporate strategy will be met with a resounding thud if the e-mail server is down, just as a dissertation on the nuances of the new Android OS APIs will produce yawns at a board meeting. Part of wearing the right hat is art, part is observing the players in the room and the tone of the discussion, but the sooner CIOs realize they must fill two very different roles, the sooner we can progress in each.