The speed at which the IT industry has developed and altered the way we all live and work has not been matched by a similar level of acceptance for the individuals who research, develop and deploy the technology as professionals.
There are IT professionals who advance knowledge and understanding of computer science, others who apply IT to the solution of engineering problems, and an increasing number who exploit the technology to deliver business or service advantage. The metamorphosis of this last group is exemplified by the changing role of chief information officer (CIO).
The value of the CIO
There have been debates in the past centred on arguments about whether organisations even needed a CIO, but reliance on technology is embedding the CIO role ever more strategically at the heart of business.
This is an enlightened response and there is a danger that the IT department and the CIO who heads the team can be sidelined by rogue departments implementing services in isolation.
Furthermore, an IT function that is only concerned with fulfilling the stereotypical role of being an internal service provider may well find that the real responsibility for information and innovation is taken elsewhere.
In testing economic conditions technology is playing a vital role in the survival of many organisations and those that will survive best are those that can reinvent themselves to become key players in new markets.
This will often require the use of technology to offer new services and adds up to a changing role for CIOs, who are gaining increasing levels of responsibility alongside value and respect. In order to be at the forefront of this thinking, CIOs need to evaluate new technologies continuously to assess which can affect the organisation. Depending on how ahead of the technology curve the CIO is positioned, this can mean the difference between a potential opportunity and a threat.
A place on the board
Traditionally board-level representation has come from finance, marketing and HR; no consideration was given to including representation from IT. This was largely down to the presumption that the IT function existed only to provide technical solutions to perceived problems and it was not empowered to make any other contribution.
Today CIOs are becoming more involved in business strategy and it is not uncommon for them to be linked with HR or finance.
Does this make sense? It would seem to. Business change projects are often reliant on IT, and it is the CIO who carries the responsibility for implementing these projects.
CIOs need to be agents of change. IT functions can find themselves fighting on several fronts at once as they are asked to do more with less, and CIOs need to be able to respond positively to any and all challenges to fulfil their role.
The CIO is crucial to providing leadership, but the answer lies also in the skills and competence of the workforce. IT professionals are central to business success, and those in leadership positions have to refocus their attention repeatedly to capitalise on new technologies and ways of working, even if this means committing considerable resources to finding out what the latest emerging technologies are.
CIOs are beginning to be recognised as the people who can dramatically reform their organisations.
There has always been a need to align IT structures and development with business requirements, but there is growing recognition that this strategic role requires board-level representation. There is an emphasis now on alignment of business goals with IT projects and growing recognition for the professionals who are engaged in these processes.
Today, a large part of a CIO's role includes making a contribution to corporate strategy. Information systems and technology have become such an integral part of the business world that more and more organisations are realising the importance of their CIOs possessing the business management and leadership skills required to integrate the organisation with the major components of an information system.
Technology leadership should become an essential and common path to the board if UK plc is to continue to be equipped to compete on a global scale: Leadership skills combined with business acumen are therefore essential for CIOs to excel.
Adam Thilthorpe is director of professionalism at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. He is speaking on this topic at 360IT - the IT infrastructure event at Earl's Court in London on 22-23 September 2010.