Reclaiming the role of the CIO

It has become fashionable to question the value of the role of CIO, but much of this discourse is both self-serving and without foundation

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The most influential women in UK IT

While it has become increasingly fashionable to question the essential value of the role of chief information officer (CIO) in large complex organisations, it is unfortunate that much of this discourse is both self-serving and without any solid foundation.

For the most part, this constant haranguing in relation to the CIO is a product of vested interests in the media, the IT advisory business, and academia alike. Taken together, these forces coalesce in a manner that places the role under constant critique and possible criticism.

Having collaborated extensively over the last decade with executive and technology management teams, there is no doubt that the role of the CIO is essential to large, complex organisations.

Rather than the menacing message which is so often touted by the IT advice business, the role of the CIO is of profound importance to the strategic development and ongoing transformation of such organisations.

From a leadership perspective, the CIO attends to three shared agendas on an ongoing basis.

Shared agendas

First, the CIO works collaboratively with the executive management team in terms of shaping the strategic development of the enterprise. In this regard, the CIO brings to bear unique expertise in terms of integrating the realms of strategy and IT with particular emphases on the manner in which modern IT systems offer the potential to transform the wider business system in which the enterprise is embedded. The CIO’s role in this strategic conversation at the apex of an organisation is both essential and non-negotiable.

Second, the CIO works collaboratively with senior functional managers who are required to exploit the full potential of IT in transforming both core and support business functions. This emphasis on functional transformation draws on the CIO’s expertise in the effective management of change. Here, the CIO knows that success is highly contingent on being able to work effectively with and through other senior functional leaders.

Here the CIO regularly plays the role of political broker as there are rarely sufficient resources available to address all the needs of senior functional managers. In addition, the CIO is mindful of shadow IT resources embedded in core and support business functions. To a strong CIO, the location of resources is less important than proactively influencing how such resources are deployed.

Third, the CIO works with his or her senior management team in shaping the wide range of IT services which will be provided across the enterprise. Here the CIO has to keep a constant eye on the differentiated nature of services in the areas of strategic development, programme delivery, and operations/infrastructure services. How the IT spend is distributed across these domains is critical as strong CIOs are keen to release resources from operations/infrastructure with a view to increasing investment in strategic development and programme delivery.

Shared leadership

Strong CIOs emphasise shared leadership in the full knowledge that positive outcomes are best achieved by working with and through others.

Working with and through the executive management team allows the CIO to bring to bear a unique perspective on the organisation’s strategic development trajectory. Working with and through senior functional management teams allows the CIO to guide the astute allocation of scarce resources in transforming core and support business functions. Finally, working with and through the IT management team, the CIO can transform the enterprise’s IT delivery capability on an ongoing basis.

Considering that CIO effectiveness is rooted in the capacity to work with and through multiple management teams, it is surprising to see the scant attention this has received in both the business press and academic literature.

Indeed, even in CIO development programmes, the level of attention focused on the matters raised above tends to be equally scant and often wanting. For whatever reason, many CIO development programmes tend to focus on the rational aspects of management and organisations as distinct from the social process of organising and changing. 

Effective CIOs are increasingly mindful of the diverse ways in which management teams shape and guide change in large, complex organisations

This is clearly evidenced in constant agonising over the alignment of business and IT strategies when strategy related considerations constitute nothing more than one important realm of managerial practice.

There are equally powerful realms of practice that warrant sustained focus and attention if the CIO is to lead well and contribute positively to enhancing performance at individual, group and organisational levels.

Having worked extensively in recent years with a wide range of large, complex public service organisations, it comes as no surprise that a CIO’s effectiveness is directly related to his or her capacity to share leadership with the wide range of management teams noted earlier. 

It equally comes as no surprise that effective CIOs do not spend endless time seeking to align strategies. There are other effective methods to guide the astute allocation of scarce resources across the enterprise. Strategy is not the only game in town.

Shaping change

Effective CIOs are increasingly mindful of the diverse ways in which management teams shape and guide change in large complex organisations. They readily know that change may be advanced from multiple perspectives including strategic, technical, social, and political.

The likelihood that any one management team will advance change in a coordinated and integrated manner is low. The astute CIO knows that the multiple perspectives on change are rooted primarily in the behavioural patterns of individual managers as distinct from management teams per se.

While the language of strategy is essential for a CIO to lead well, so too is the language of organisation development and change. The latter places particular emphases on achieving change by working with and through others. It equally places a strong emphasis on teamwork, and the effective integration of strategic, technical, social, and political aspects of change.

Indeed, there is no field better equipped to directly address the propensity for underperformance and failure which so often bedevils the IT domain.

So, rather than being distracted by constant haranguing in relation to the role of the CIO, it is right and fitting that CIOs proactively embrace the challenges they are invited to address by virtue of their office and related functions.

It seems prudent that CIOs take hold of the ongoing agenda for change as it relates to executive management, senior functional management, and IT management alike. Energy wisely invested in pursuit of this agenda will ensure that both the role of the CIO and its related strategic functions endure well into the future.

Joe McDonagh (pictured) is associate professor of organisation development and IT at the School of Business, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills