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Mission: Possible - seeking advice for CIOs

You’re the CIO, the meeting is tomorrow and your CEO is asking impossible questions. Who can you call?

CIOs come in all shapes and sizes and they come to the role with various backgrounds and knowledge. Over the last 10 years technology has become way more ubiquitous and complicated, yet curiously at the same time more accessible.

The commoditisation of technology has left those with little real knowledge of it feeling more comfortable while simultaneously discomforting those who are supposed to know about it.

The result? Many of us live today in a corporate schism of traditional and digital. Traditional is old-fashioned, dull and boring; digital is the opposite – new, edgy, agile, iconoclastic and, above all, fast. Digital is often seen as the fulfilment of the CEO’s mantra of better, cheaper, quicker.

This is the current context of an old conundrum: Who does a CIO call when she or he needs advice?

There really was a time when you wouldn’t get fired if you bought IBM. And there have been more recent pretenders to this kind of technical dominance in various domains. We used to say to our clients: “How will you compete with Microsoft when they enter your market?” It seems funny now, but it was a real threat at the time and now we say similar things about Google, LinkedIn and Facebook.

In fact today, you won’t find more than one in 10 FTSE100 CIOs who would claim to be technical in any meaningful way. It’s way too dangerous and to be avoided to have a CIO who claims to be expert in all relevant technologies. But we still expect them to keep us safe and guide us in technology decision-making. So who will you call?

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Where does a CIO turn?

Ruling out any small chance that a CIO might actually know the answer to a technical question, the first place they will turn is to their own team. Building a great team is the stand-out, number one competency of a top CIO for good reason. That team (and the teams they build) needs to be technically brilliant, with relevant knowledge at their fingertips.

Not only knowledge of the technologies, but of their strengths and weaknesses, application, relevance, abundance of supply, dependence on scarce skills and a whole panoply of technology-related information the CEO will never think about, but which needs to be thoroughly known to be able to answer killer CEO technology questions like, “Why don’t we build an app for that?” or, “Why don’t we have one of those?”

So if the home team is the number one call for 80% of the information the CIO needs, where does the team get the information and how reliable is it? A CIO had better know this too because, in the worst case, it can get him fired.

Unlike their boss, technology managers are expected to have good experience and know quite a lot about what they have been hired to manage.

And because it is the nature of technology to develop quite fast and to vary quite a bit, this is probably only possible for people who enjoy technology, are enthusiasts for what it can do well and who ensure they invest the time and effort required to read incessantly, to attend conferences and to do anything else to remain current in knowing quite a lot about their area.

We can usefully divide these knowledge domains into information about the technologies themselves, insight into how organisations are making good use of them and expectations about how the technologies and their usage will develop in the future.

In the old days we had “user groups” and “IBM watchers” for this. The groups were fed privileged information by the suppliers and disseminated their information on a “first-to-know” basis among their peers. The watchers would also write in magazines, before the days of the internet.

But it turned out that suppliers were not the best source of advice on what innovative users were doing with their technology. This mantle was taken over by the independent research syndicates, which have remained with us ever since, based on the pioneering 1960s Diebold Group, which played a central role in the development of the IT industry as we know it. This included the creation and dissemination of ideas, insights and the introduction of paradigms defining the IT role in the management of businesses and governments.

Today, this is the role played by major research syndicates – the likes of Gartner, the Working Council, Leading Edge Forum, Forrester and a range of more niche players. Their model, still recognisably based on Diebold, is to recruit technology users into large, segmented groups, work with them to find out what is going on, where the sticking points are and what “good” looks like and to salami-slice this knowledge for subscription delivery to thousands of corporate clients.

Detailed reports are written (sometimes denigrated as shelf ware), and research launch conferences are held in pleasant locations such as Barcelona for the Europeans, or Palm Springs for the Americans (equally denigrated as hosepipe sessions or jollies). The true source of value, delivered at industrial scale, is what organisations are doing with available technology, where they are succeeding and where they are struggling. They are intermediaries for techies talking to techies across the globe. The best thing about the conference is the people they will bump into while they are there.

But surely it isn’t all about the technology?

Correct! You know that smart CIOs don’t claim to know much about technology and you also know that they will refer 80% of technology-related queries to their teams. But what about the other 20%? We can raise the challenge at least that it’s this 20% that makes up 80% of the value at CIO level. So what is this valuable knowledge? Let’s call it the softer stuff.

The softer stuff is all of the knowing and nous required by senior leaders in major corporations; the alliances, the deals and the political imperatives. It requires the skills of building relationships, of powerful charismatic communication, of reading a room, of sensing weak signals and scores of other things that inform what we may call intuition or gut feeling. All successful senior executives must develop these skills. CIOs are special only in that they are responsible for a domain that can make or break the company, and get any one or all of the C-suite fired. That’s quite a trick. It can make them powerful; it can also make them a target.

CIO on CIO action

This is why CIOs seemingly seek out endless opportunities to meet each other, to chew the fat, to tell the same old jokes, to reassure each other that they still don’t know about technology and to check how everyone else is finding it. This is the same genius of Diebold in an era when heads of IT cannot possibly understand and keep up with all technologies and they have given up trying.

We have entered the era of the informal and unstructured CIO network: the breakfasts, the lunches, the buffet and drinks evenings. These gatherings need a theme, and the theme may be some emerging piece of technology, but CIOs don’t attend because of the technology, they attend to meet other CIOs, labouring under the pressure of boards who don’t understand them asking impossibly difficult questions about unknowable futures. Who can understand these questions? Who can they call? They can only call each other.

 Brinley Platts is founder and chairman of CIO Development

This was last published in November 2015

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