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Next‑generation CIOs: The changing role of IT leaders

The position of CIO is changing and there are more people in the role from less technical backgrounds than in the past

Life is tough for today’s chief information officers. Just keeping up to speed with what is happening in the world of technology is difficult. Three and even four-letter acronym (TLA and FLA) confusion abounds. Where does SDN fit into SDDC? Should you be looking at VoLTE rather than VoIP over SIP? Is NVMe via M.2 better than PCIe for high-performance datacentre storage?

In reality, these terms aren't of that much use to CIOs – it is all just so much speeds and feeds. These technical aspects change so rapidly that trying to keep up to date just creates a further problem of firefighting – you get so worried about being on an old platform that all that you can do is implement ill-thought-out technical changes with continuous, negative business impact.

The position of CIO has been changing and we are seeing more people in the role from less technical backgrounds than in the past. The main driver for this is cloud computing – a public cloud platform hides more of the technical back end from the user than an in-house, physical platform.

The canny CIO can then focus on what matters, which is supporting the business. Rather than worrying if the servers are AMD, Intel or Power-based, with a Dell, HP or IBM badge on them, the CIO can look at the overall capabilities and performance of a cloud provider’s platform and services.

Acting as a business-led advisor

The modern CIO, therefore, has to be far more of a business-led advisor, getting involved as early as possible in the discussions around the business’s tactical and strategic needs. Then, the CIO can look for the best overall systems and present them back to the business in terms it can understand. This will not involve speeds and feeds but, instead, what the system offers in terms of cost reduction, risk reduction and value improvement for the business over what time periods.

Sure, the CIO still has to be careful to ensure the services and functions they are advising the business to use meet strict criteria of performance, availability, security, compliance and so on. But this is not predicated on the physical platform so much as the cloud provider’s overall approach and its use of policies and procedures to ensure agreed service levels are met.

This does not absolve the CIO from abdicating all knowledge of what is happening in the technology world. Although the abstraction from hardware to software means the general need to track speeds and feeds is less of an issue, what is happening at the software layer becomes more important.

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To ensure the business is fully supported, an understanding of how to achieve high availability at the right cost is needed, along with how to ensure that information is secured as it passes along a process workflow.

Being able to understand how disparate workflows between the company and its customers and suppliers can be integrated to provide the optimum business value is also needed, as is being able to ensure areas such as the internet of things/everything (IoT/E) are dealt with successfully.

Tapping information sources

Therefore, the CIO needs to tap sources of information on these subjects. The internet has lots of information, but therein lies the problem – there is too much information available.

The internet suffers from a lack of curation. Even though the technical capability to measure the perceived value of information is there through tracking how many times a document has been referred to, re-posted or tweeted, there are few easy ways to carry out a global search and receive curated information back. Fighting through all the dross to find the flecks of gold is too much of a time-waster for most CIOs.

Trusting in incumbent suppliers and service providers is also not recommended. They will have their own agendas, often trying to force their existing portfolios into the topic du jour, even if it is actually the wrong tool for the job.

Even paid-for information, in the line of industry analyst services, may not be what a CIO is looking for. Unfortunately, many paid-for sources are not in a position to carry out full product evaluations, and the sources are having to produce output that is aimed at the general organisation – not your specific one.

With all of these sources, there is a need for a trust relationship to be built up first. Ask yourself: Do you know the author of an item picked up off the internet? Has your supplier or service provider been honest and trustworthy with you before? Do you have a good working relationship with a named analyst?

Surrounding yourself with the right people

So, this seems to leave the CIO with a pretty major problem.  However, as the "grunt work" of systems admin is progressively avoided through automation and outsourcing to public cloud, more of the IT budget and resources should be freed up.

The CIO has to look for the right people to surround themselves with people who can have a depth of understanding in for example, the IoT/E while also having sufficient breadth of knowledge to be able to contextually understand how this fits into the business’ needs and what the rest of the IT team is doing.

These new IT team members have to be a new breed of business architects – driven from the top of the business, being able to act as the Babel Fish, translating business needs into technical capabilities. Each one can use multiple sources to increase their depth of knowledge in their particular area, and as a team can report back to the CIO who then has the job of ensuring that any composite system meets the business’s overall needs. So, although previously stating that all sources have to be regarded as suspect, by sharing out the work effectively, those flecks of gold dust can be found more effectively.

Don't forget the users, either. Many of these may well have found approaches that work for them through shadow IT, paying low‑cost subscriptions for cloud‑based services they or their team are using.

Users are now more likely to be technically ahead of the technology curve an organisation has had to adopt because of long refresh cycles, due to the ubiquity of advanced technology in their personal lives.

Bring your own device and the increase in home automation means there are many users out there who may have great ideas or be already using great systems to support their work. CIOs should identify such usage and see if it is useful across the company – then make sure the system is enterprise-grade. If so, push it out across the rest of the business; if not, find a similar system that offers the same or better functionality that is enterprise-grade.

All information gathered from these new business architects and users needs to be captured and curated internally, so that all assumptions and sources can be checked as needed to make sure that false or suspect information has not been used.

Here, companies such as Druva, Commvault and Docurated provide tools for analysing and tagging data and information for all workers that can collate information into libraries that do not involve high cost document management systems that only focus on the needs of the few.

CIO more critical than ever

The new CIO is therefore a person wearing many hats. They are the point of confluence between business needs and technical capabilities. They are the aggregate point for sets of mixed ideas coming through from a team of business-led technical experts. They are business advisors ensuring the organisation does not take on tactical technology systems that work against the longer-term strategy. They are the buffer against suppliers who over-promise and under-deliver.

With the pace of change in technology and the need for organisations to have continual change in their processes, the CIO role is more critical than it has ever been. Whereas technical change for the sake of technical change is bad for the business, supporting continuous change in the business through technical flexibility has to be the goal.

Those who want to remain hyper-technical now need to get out and work for a hyper-technical company, such as a cloud service provider. Those who want to remain a valid and valuable member of a user organisation must change their mindset and take on these various hats to ensure the business maintains market competitiveness into the future.

Clive Longbottom is founder of analyst company Quocirca

This was first published in October 2015

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