CIOs working in the banking and financial services arena are continually dancing to a familiar tune: the relentless pursuit of efficiency as a key driver of sustainable business growth. That's a very simple thing to say - but damned difficult to pull off, writes Neil Pullen.
Being a CIO is like being a McLaren Formula One engineer, competing against not just the Ferrari team, but several other high-octane competitors. Likewise, whether you are in retail and investment banking or insurance, all the teams are as cut-throat as each other. To win, you have to be able to drive innovation: initiate it, manage it and pilot it within the business to gain a competitive edge. You have to provide systems that go "faster, faster, faster" yet "cheaper, cheaper, cheaper", and get your business first out of the pits and into the lead.
This means the CIO must take a leadership role to help the overall organisation develop and maintain a vibrant but balanced and structured approach to investments in innovation. The CIO will always be challenged by his business partners to continuously drive IT costs down and this is a pressure that will never go away - nor should it.
Equally important is that the CIO constantly engages the business line executives to make sure there is a common understanding of the value that IT is creating for their business and a shared vision of how to enhance and increase that value going forward. Without this shared vision between the CIO and the business execs, the organisation is in danger of making some regrettable decisions on the cost-cutting-versus-investment agenda in IT.
Consider this: although a CIO could once have claimed to be the fount of all wisdom on technology within an organisation, that is no longer the case. Today, senior executives outside IT understand the criticality of technology to both their respective functions and the organisation as a whole. The CIO is no longer the single knowledge point or technology decision-maker.
The role of the modern-day CIO is to provide renewal and transformation leadership be a facilitator in the top team shape, design and mould the future model and deliver on agreed execution plans.
That means taking a leaf out of a top civil servant's book, being consistently out "on the road" throughout the organisation, probing, finding out potential departmental glitches before they become bigger, high-profile problems. It means having a deep knowledge of all facets of the business, understanding the way its banking, insurance and other financial services products work, how the business can be better enabled by taking advantage of technology and business-led innovation, and seeing what might be coming down the track.
Ultimately, the CIO should have the same critical view across the organisation as the CEO, because the CIO is in a unique position within the CEO's team.
He or she is informed, business-focused, primed with practical solutions, and able to be a key influencer in the business's best interests, the architect and custodian of the strategic technology vision that underpins the organisation's plans, creating competitor-beating qualities for the business.
Neil Pullen is managing director of bespoke CIO financial services search firm Freestone.
This was first published in March 2008