The changing role of the CIO

Peter Crush

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Businesses demand CIOs who don’t just know their bits from their bytes, but who can also be strategic colleagues with a thorough business overview. But are they stepping up to the plate?

At IT recruitment specialist company La Fosse Associates, executive search consultant Chris Chandler recently received what he admitted was, at first, a ‘surprising brief’. The request was for a CIO – initially nothing ostensibly untoward about that. What followed however, was the requirement he/she be “a visionary; someone that would turn the business on its head; challenge norms, and see new technologies coming over the horizons”.

Flowery language aside, there will doubtless be many IT professionals who consider this to have been written with tongue firmly in cheek. As a recent poll by Forrester Research revealed – probably to many not coming as a surprise – that only 38 per cent of IT decision makers say they have any sort of collaboration with key business decision makers. Moreover, the same research found more than half (54 per cent) of business execs thought the CIO was actually an ‘obstacle’ to the business, not an enabler. This job ad… it’s surely pie-in-the-sky, isn’t it?

Maybe not though. On reflection, even Chandler, speaking at a recent Computer Weekly CW500 Club event, conceded that this kind of request is indicative of what most businesses now really demand of their CIOs, and that any chief information officer who thinks that he or she can sit on the side lines is mistaken. He says: “We are at the cusp of a dramatic shift in what organisations are seeing in terms of people, process, technology and culture. Businesses may not know exactly the type of CIO they want, but know the kind of business they want to be. And they want the CIO to be the person that can help them get there.”

Without doubt, experts agree the theoretical role of the CIO is changing, and CIOs need to change with it. “Historically, the CIO was cast as the techie – more comfortable working on IT systems than helping to devise and deliver overall business strategy,” says Professor Joe Peppard, from Berlin’s ESMT European School of Management and Technology. He adds: “In the age of ‘Big Data’ the strategic importance of information is clear. It is the CIO’s duty to work with C-suite colleagues to make sure that this information is harnessed in the most beneficial way.”

The problem, he argues, is that CIOs still like to regard themselves as the ‘black sheep’ within the business – the put-down backroom function. The challenge, says Kevin Knowles, managing partner at IT recruiter Cavendish Wood, is to shake this off: “CIOs must find new ways of working as other ‘tech’ members join the board, such as Chief Data Officers and Chief Analytics Officers, and as other board members become more technology aware.” Knowles argues it is as much the CIOs responsibility to change as it is for the business to listen to them.

This new-look, changing face aspect to the role is typified by the likes of Johan den Haan, CIO of tech firm Mendex. “Rapid change is the norm,” he concedes. “So my role has changed too. Today it’s as much about designing, developing and deploying applications to support new business initiatives, while, at the same time, also building support for frequent change into the process.”

So what’s holding CIOs back? Vidya Phalke, CIO of MetricStream, certainly believes most CIOs’ management-skills need honing – particularly around establishing background risk and governance frameworks. But, he argues, much of this can be achieved by CIOs positioning themselves properly. “By placing themselves in the driving seat of the business strategy, the CIO should emerge as one of the most critical advisers,” he insists.

Another problem is that, with the continued growth of IT outsourcing (UK figures were up 15 per cent to £3.44 billionin 2014 alone), a source of frustration for CIOs is demonstrating cost transparency. “To make matters more complicated, technology is no longer just an IT issue, but also a business issue,” says Derek Britton, director of Micro Focus. “Most departments – HR, marketing and sales – are reliant on the assistance of systems in their day-to-day work. The problem,” he adds, “is that Gartner predicts that, by 2020, as much as 90 per cent of IT spending could be decided by business teams other than the IT department. This means that there’s less IT budget for CIOs to play with, but there’s also more reason for CIOs to feel excluded from the business.”

To survive, and be the visionaries Chandler’s brief required them to be, the task is clearly to adapt. “It’s right that the CIO role must continue to mitigate all of the associated technology risks,” says Phalke. “But it must evolve too.”

Mario Spanicciati, executive director of BlackLine EMEA, says: “CIOs are evolving to be business-driven leaders rather than tech-focused managers – but this takes time.” The question is therefore whether time is running out for CIOs to transform themselves into the kind of people business leaders want them to be?

“The good news is that you no longer find CIOs hiding away in data centres at the bottom of the building,” says Simon Kouttis, technical lead at banking technology provider, Scott and May. He adds: “The modern CIO knows they are instrumental to the future of their company. But to be a higher profile CIO requires new skills – company strategy, as well as ‘softer’ skills. CIOs need to understand what the business wants to achieve and what technology will support those goals. This means demonstrating a mix of stakeholder and project management skills.” In conclusion, he points out: “The CIO knows how the engine room works, which should give them an advantage; they take a microscopic view of business and how technology can enable strategic growth.”