The DNA of the CIO

CIOs need to stop ignoring the inevitable and start changing before they are forced to

The CIO has long been positioned as a senior executive on the cusp of becoming a truly strategic partner to the business. But the reality is that relatively few CIOs have so far managed to reinvent themselves sufficiently to actually become one.

Less than one in five of the CIOs polled for a study by Ernst & Young have risen to become a full member of their company’s executive management team. And when asked about the degree to which they participate in strategic decision-making, responses were lukewarm, with just 43% rating this as something they are highly engaged in.

Indeed, in their interactions with the organisation’s leadership, today’s CIOs are typically talking most often about IT budgets and IT’s role in business transformations. They are far less likely to be discussing the overall performance of the business, or shaping the key decisions that influence it.

Shaping strategic decisions

Even when it comes to providing the data needed for strategic decisions – arguably the central premise for the “information” part of their title – many CIOs are reluctant in their reply. A notable minority (14%) even say that this is simply not something they are called on to provide.

Despite nearly two decades of debate about the need for a truly strategic CIO role to emerge, this remains a work in progress. The central role that technology has played in nearly every industry and sector of business since then emphasises just how big an opportunity CIOs have already missed.

To help them steer the business, CEOs are in clear need of “co-drivers” who combine technology expertise with business skills. Executive recruiters readily agree, but such candidates are notable by their rarity.

The clear message from many CIOs – old and young, in mature and rapid-growth markets and spanning a range of industries – is that the status quo will need to change. To stay relevant in a rapidly evolving technological landscape, CIOs will need to break out of their comfort zones within the datacentre. Those who don’t will run the risk of being further relegated down the corporate hierarchy, or sidelined altogether.

A brief history of change

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To get a sense of why this might be requires a step back to gain a wider perspective of the transitions underway within the IT sector. The role of what is now known as the CIO was born during the 1960s and 1970s, but it was only during the 1980s and 1990s that businesses started to digitise many of their processes

They began to demand that the CIO develop a greater understanding of these processes. Along with this, a stronger focus on cost control meant CIOs often reported to the chief financial officer.

Since then, the internet era has taken hold. Companies of all types and sizes have gone online to share applications and data across the organisation. And while much of this remains hosted on servers within the corporate walls, a new era is rapidly emerging. 

Companies are making a shift away from creating their computing resource in-house, toward the unassailable logic of treating this as a utility resource instead.

This is not merely a shift in computing architecture; it is changing how companies use IT. Having previously digitised existing processes, many are now wholly automating processes, or simply removing them altogether.

Inflection point

Many CIOs describe this consumerisation of IT as an inflection point – a transition where the rest of the business starts to feel able to implement technical solutions, without the CIO. But few technology leaders have looked far enough ahead to see the real long-term transition happening.

CIOs need to stop ignoring the inevitable and start changing – before they are forced to. At a high level, they will need to pay less attention to the underlying technologies they love, while focusing more on developing their abilities as leaders, managers and influencers.

And, while few feel like natural networkers, they will have to recognise that developing personal contacts is a crucial facet of the position they are in. This will not be easy. Few CIOs are automatically entrusted with the executive management team’s backing and support. They will have to fight for it.

Paolo Cavosi is IT advisory leader and Michel Savoie is IT transformation leader at Ernst & Young. This article is an edited extract from the Ernst & Young report The DNA of the CIO

Image: DigitalVision/Thinkstock

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