CIO Folder: The very junior CIOs
Loose terminology, varied demands and marching technology developments means that the top tech position is as mercurial as ever
17 October 2018 | 0
The chief information officer (CIO) is a job and rank for large organisations.
Despite the fact that it is more common today, it persists at the top of the scale and shows no sign of penetrating smaller enterprises. Elsewhere it is called IT director, IT manager. There are many arguments that CIO is a different role, that it is the strategic lead in an organisation that depends on IT and it is C-Suite and on a par with other senior leaders. So how come smaller organisations have an IT director? The answer is that the role and responsibilities match the scale of the organisation. ‘Director’ of a function is also confined to medium or large organisations where the nomenclature for rank is more formal.
The CIO is still head of the IT function and responsible for the performance and effective services of the IT department. In the larger enterprises s/he has senior colleagues with specialist responsibilities. The CIO might even have a deputy, a generalist who effectively leads the team relieving the CIO of the daily burden in order to free time for strategic thinking and advice to the C-Suite or Board.
But think about it: the IT manager in an SME has essentially the same job. It is often far less complex and ‘keeping the lights on’ is a major part of it. But the giving of strategic advice on IT improvements and investment choices to the MD/CEO and the Board is the same — provided they do not trust an outside ‘consultant’ more. In the many family businesses in Ireland, there are second generation family members or employees with an appreciation of IT.
“There has been a lot of talk about the CIO role becoming a ‘broker of solutions’. Effectively the IT manager in a small organisation is already that, choosing and supervising third party services. The IT manager will advise the Board or the CEO on choice, implementation and ongoing systems maintenance, working with the vendor or external consultants. That takes a savvy computing person, with sector-specific business acumen”
There is nothing like a busy business to concentrate the mind wonderfully on the IT needs or the practical, economic choices. Experience is a major advantage but knowledge, judgement and above all the taking of advice is a good substitute for a junior IT ‘specialist’. Small businesses generally are perceptive judges of talent and a nascent IT manager will be identified.
SMEs in Ireland are very diverse. They are largely businesses like retailers, pubs, hotels and service firms like insurance brokers, solicitors and accountants, IT services, membership and voluntary organisations and start-ups of infinite variety. The majority of SMEs have a person responsible for IT and other technology. Sometimes it is informal and part-time, just because the person has an aptitude for it.
Some SMEs are reluctant to appoint an IT manager, seeing it as an uneconomic burden or an occasional job for specific upgrade projects. Then there is the dilemma produced by an external IT services contract, where it might be unduly expensive to call out a technician for a simple (but essential) task. Some IT services assign a regular technician to spend one day a month in each of their clients. It is frequently a valuable aspect of the service, where the technician becomes familiar with the client’s systems and staff and can carry out modifications or upgrades relatively easily.
SMEs are dependent on external services until they expand sufficiently to appoint an IT manager — or choose a digital path to market. This is a significant break point in the development of an enterprise, more frequently today a strategy of digital transformation. Ideally, the company chooses the best candidate to match the direction it is going in, e.g. trading online, expanding branches, investing in new systems, etc.
But reality often intrudes. Those specialist skills may not be readily available for the salary levels in an SME. The alternative is a generalist, which one school of thought recommends for a small organisation. You can buy in the specialist or project skills and your IT manager can advise or choose, supervise the implementation and carry on after the need for specialist skills is past — until a new set of requirements emerges.
The CIO in a large organisation has to be a generalist because there is a vast and constantly growing span of relevant IT advances, from cyber security to cloud(s) and mobile enablement for staff. SMEs have a comparable range of relevant IT, depending on the sector. The emphasis is mostly on the functioning of systems, business continuity and IT security, including data protection.
There has been a lot of talk about the CIO role becoming a ‘broker of solutions’. Effectively the IT manager in a small organisation is already that, choosing and supervising third party services. For example a lot of SMEs aspire to sophisticated ERP or CRM suites, which will deliver smart solutions to the company and enable seamless expansion. The IT manager will advise the Board or the CEO on choice, implementation and ongoing systems maintenance, working with the vendor or external consultants. That takes a savvy computing person, with sector-specific business acumen, not necessarily an expert on ERP, CRM or other software applications.
In that context, Ireland is still a small country when it comes to networking — and gossip. A few phone calls or pints in a pub will inform an IT manager in a small organisation which service firms are reliable and appropriate.
CIOs are more often than not selected because of their domain knowledge. After all, banking or insurance is greatly different from transport or supply chains or manufacturing. Knowledge and experience in the relevant sector tends to be paramount. At a lower level, small organisations need above all the mature understanding of their business sector. With fewer colleagues at management level, business performance tends to reflect their collective experience and judgement.
Leaders and leadership are essential in SMEs, together with hard work flavoured with enthusiasm. Book knowledge or formal training comes second. It is not to be disparaged, but on-the-job training in IT is 99.99% specialised. General development in IT is third level, at the beginning of a career. The lack of a degree is overtaken by experience and proven judgement, especially in small organisations as opposed to the larger entities where the HR Department sets the criteria.
What all organisations have in common is that business and people skills are essential, even in the civil service or not-for-profits. We in the IT media tend to focus on the CIO. Naturally, because that is the apex of IT management. But those human skills, natural or acquired, are essential for every manager. Whether CIO, IT director or simply IT manager (or the informal roles in mini-enterprises) that is the essential blend of skills. People skills are at the top, especially in SMEs, followed by business judgement and related domain knowledge. IT skills are essential — but last on the list.
Just like the CIO.