CIO challenges

The outgoing CEO of the AIIA, Ian Birks has had the ear of policy makers and other influencers. He has a unique insight to the world CIOs will be facing over the next few years.

Ian Birks first joined the Australian Information Industry Association as a board member six years ago. He was appointed as CEO three years later and has told the board that he will be moving on later this year. That experience and his association with policy makers and other influencers gives him a unique insight to the technological...

environment CIOs will be facing over the next few years.

"The digital economy and the impact of the National Broadband Network as an underpinning piece of infrastructure will facilitate many opportunities. We are going to get a ubiquitous high-speed network and that will introduce a massive opportunity for all businesses and governments. Smart businesses will look at the transforming effect of this" Birks said.

From Birks’ point of view, this goes much further than technology. It will impact customer service delivery, how the entire supply chain works and how services are delivered. “There needs to be some very progressive thinking. By having a ubiquitous high-speed broadband infrastructure we instantly become part of a global market economy and this changes the landscape in terms of potential competitors. Organisations must be developing a solid and well-informed digital economy strategy now at the very highest levels. If that’s not already on the agendas of the boardrooms of Australia it ought to be. And if it’s not there it ought to be the CIO who is driving that awareness and understanding into senior management”.

One of the challenges CIOs face is that established businesses that are successful today are heavily invested in systems and infrastructure that deliver profits now. The injection of technology ends up being used as a stop-gap way of enhancing or accelerating small parts of an existing process rather than taking a holistic view. Birks says that part of the challenge is to “hold back how we do things today but let’s think about the future. Let’s envision how we’re going to run our business in the future and what the capabilities will be. Let’s not be constrained by today”. 

Transitioning from legacy systems remains a huge challenge and it’s the CIO who can be an important player in the boardroom. IT departments often have a better holistic view of an entire business than individual department heads as IT systems tend to cross organisational boundaries. Birks sees that IT departments can be important players in supporting the transitions. Rather than automating older, inefficient processes savvy IT leaders can help define entire new business models and processes.

It can be very challenging for a CIO to get this message into the senior management. Walking into a management meeting and declaring the CEO to be a luddite isn’t going to work. Birks says that “it’s all about the CIO being very tightly connected to the business strategy planning process. All of the management team needs to be engaged into thinking in a different way. If the CIO goes out of their way to be strongly committed and engaged with the business planning objectives then that’s a catalyst to success”.

That means that the role of the CIO is changing with professional management skills now becoming more important than hardcore technical skills. “The traditional CIO role is under threat because of these changes” says Birks. In his view, the CIO runs the risk of being the person that simply “keeps the lights on” and not be an active member of the change process. “The CIO must break out and become a positive input to the strategic direction of the business”. That might even lead to a split in the CIO’s role with a technical, operational leader and technology strategist working together. 

Birks looks at the example of Barack Obama as a potential model through the establishment of a Chief technology Officer for the US government. That person “sits above all the silos of government and looks for opportunities to connect the silos and improve government at a higher level that is connected to the President. They see that opportunities in one department, such as health, need to be connected to another department, such as the tax office or education. I think we’ll see more of that in business”.

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