29 Sep 2009, Linda More, Computing
The role of the CIO is a powerful one - if you play it correctly. If companies do not have a strong CIO, they will not get the proper strategic thinking that a business needs these days
Trevor Didcock chief information officer, Homeserve
IT leaders do not just magically appear - they must be created and nurtured. Ultimately, the chief information officers (CIOs) and technology leaders of tomorrow will emerge from the people who are being encouraged to develop the necessary skills today.
The role of the CIO has been around for about 10 years now, and there is still considerable confusion and divided opinion about the function of the CIO and its value to the business.
A substantial number of senior executives in top UK companies probably do not yet understand what a CIO is, or what one is supposed to do. As a result, many CIOs will face an uphill struggle if they are to make it onto the senior management team.
For a growing number of organisations, there is some enlightenment regarding the position of information and technology within the business, and the need for someone to fulfil the role of the CIO, with both being recognised as critical to business performance and growth.
Trevor Didcock, CIO at home emergency service Homeserve, has seen IT go from a back-room operation to a critical business function during his career as a technology leader.
"The role of the CIO is a powerful one - if you play it correctly," he says. "I sit on the management team and have an active say on the strategic issues and how things are run. If companies do not have a strong CIO, they won't get the proper strategic thinking that a business needs these days."
Information and technology should not only serve the needs of the business, they must also become a driving force for change, innovation and growth.
Vincent Kelly, CIO for communications provider Orange Business Services, operates as part of a cross-organisational team of five CIOs on strategic issues for the group.
"My role as a CIO is to ensure that we are delivering value and efficiency - not just in terms of cost, but also in process provision. It is not a static role; it's always changing and evolving. I may have the same title, but my focus will change," he says.
Initially, Kelly's role was concerned with managing the integration of mergers, before the focus moved to looking at the changing delivery model including outsourcing arrangements, cross-country working and the challenges of service delivery in low-cost areas of the globe. More recently, due partly to the unsettled economic climate, the value components of the business have been under his scrutiny, with emphasis on driving efficiencies in both cost and process.
Although most UK companies can boast an IT manager, too few have a CIO or equivalent as a full participant on the senior management team. According to a recent report from Cranfield School of Management and Deloitte, the CIO should play a central role in every company, ensuring information underpins the business strategy.
Unfortunately, the study also finds that the role of CIO is poorly defined, confused and with little understanding of its scope, so many CIOs feel perpetually out of the loop. The research also revealed that the role of a CIO is particularly sensitive to the precise context and needs of an organisation and is seen by some as a transitory role with a clear beginning, middle and end. Once information and technology have become an integral part of the organisation, both at an operational and strategic level, and are being used to drive innovation and change, the corporate perception is that there is no further need for a CIO.
CIOs tend to be effective in organisations that allow them to use IT as an important strategic driver. They fail when the CIO is regarded by the business as a glorified IT manager.
Steven Purewall, CIO at international sports, entertainment and media firm IMG World, believes it will take time to overcome the traditional barriers that have always existed for IT leadership roles, with many companies still considering them to be technology project management functions rather than business enablers.
"While the CIO position is still viewed as a technology-focused role within the organisation, a lot of IT projects in the past five years have become more closely aligned with major company objectives at board level," says Purewall. "Business alignment will always be a top issue in IT leadership today."
David Chan, an experienced CIO and now director of the Centre for Information Leadership at City University, is charged with defining the important role that CIOs must play in shaping enterprise strategy and governance within their organisations.
"Successful CIOs are the people who can play the political games today, but the opportunities for that type of role will disappear in the next 15 years," he says. "The future information leader will not be the CIO of today."
IT leadership candidates desperately need to be provided with the opportunity to gain management experience so they can broaden their business perspectives and grow their skills. It is not enough simply to spend time in a role - for future CIOs it is essential to develop specific experience, such as leading a global team or managing a turnaround initiative.
"The ability to plan clearly for the future, drive change and lead innovation while promoting integration and co-operation, at the same time educating and motivating others, as well as constantly focusing on the needs of the internal and external customer, is the job description of a modern CIO," says Chan.
Information and technology are now regarded as potentially powerful drivers for growth within organisations. It is therefore essential that an appropriate leadership structure for information and technology is created to allow an organisation to exploit them to the fullest and gain advantage over co mpetitors.
When a company puts a CIO in place as part of the senior management team, it demonstrates a difference in attitude, approach and strategy regarding the place of information and technology within its organisation. However, to succeed, the CIO needs to be given a platform from which they can make a difference, and be seen to be making that difference.
Professor Peter Cochrane, futurologist and past chief technology officer, says that traditionally, IT departments and CIOs have been concerned with corporate control, which is unrealistic when we are moving into an era where we need corporate freedom.
"We as individuals - and as a society - reward those organisations that afford us more freedom and not less. CIOs and IT departments should aspire to be as helpful to the organisation as Google," he says.
Cultivating information leaders will become an important future focus of IT departments. It will no longer be enough to simply build, implement and maintain systems - developing people who can add value to the business at board level will become a primary objective.