The CIO is back

Image: Stockfresh

27 June 2017

There has been a lot of debate over the last few years about the role of the CIO, as indeed there has been since the term was thought up in US corporations in the 1980s when the tech leader – typically ‘Director of Data Processing’ – was given a seat in the C-suite. Not all of his colleagues, almost exclusively men, welcomed such techies – not least because it began in the Bank of Boston and other US banks. Looking back at the world of boardrooms in those days, techies were viewed as ‘perfectly decent employees but not of our sort’.

The business world has changed – utterly, in many enlightened multinationals, not all ICT based. The value of the CIO role has been almost universally recognised – and there is a rising proportion of women in the role. In fact, most of the industry commentary and gossip is more about the changing role(s) and range of responsibilities of the CIO than the background or indeed the gender. There have been and are other complementary or parallel roles such as chief security officer/chief digital security officer or chief digital officer – the latter one this column has criticised in the past for being essentially a meaningless distinction. All IT is digital, dammit.

The Digital tag is a corruption of meaning, like so much of today’s transient jargon. One end of the spectrum interprets it as the person who is responsible for the organisation’s data governance. The other as a marketing or marketing support role utilising social media and all of today’s smart consumer appeal technology. Either role is potentially valid and valuable, but why cause confusion by title?

A much more valid and self-explanatory title is chief data officer, who is normally in charge of governance and utilisation of data assets. The role today extends to analytics, both to extract value and to guarantee compliance with industry-specific or national/international data protection legislation. One can imagine that the requirement for a Data Protection Officer under GDPR might be filled by that CDO or his/her deputy or alternatively that the DPO may be on the CDO’s team, with line of access to the CEO when necessary.

But if one looks objectively at all of the IT-related roles that currently have seats in the C-suite – or might have – it starts to look slightly daft, bluntly. There are also chief officers in Information Security, Digital and Digital Marketing, Innovation and Technology. There’s even a ‘visionary’ title out there somewhere. No organisation has them all, to our knowledge, but if they did they would start to out-number the other traditional and key functions. The whole idea of a C-suite is that the head of each corporately significant function has a place. It is essentially what is often called the Executive Board or the Management Board. Above them is the Board of Directors, on which the CEO and some senior colleagues usually have a place.

The C-suite is the senior team of leaders, specialists and thinkers, both at a strategic planning and operational level. Over-representation of the technology, as against the business functions, could lead to differences and division, not least because there is a danger of spurious equality among the tech leaders. There may well be exceptions, most obviously where the entire business is technology-based or virtual, like cloud services. But where there is both a CIO and a CDO, for example, one can foresee differences of priority or even tech choice conflicts, however well the roles are defined in the particular organisation.

This column’s perception is that with all of this variety and lines of development in IT in business, government, financial and online services- generating new lines of specialist responsibility in the broad area of IT and utilising its new developments, from content delivery to IoT – the CIO is back on top. In many if not most organisations today, IT is not simply a support structure for the activities – it is the organisation in a quite literal sense.

This is where the CIO is simply the clear and obvious title for the IT leader, as it was way back. In large organisations, the role is of central leadership, understanding and drawing together of the strands and functions of IT activity. The set of activities will vary widely between organisations and sectors, which is why one reason why the role of the CIO is so much debated. For example, the Innovation aspect is highly emphasised in digital online corporations but perhaps not so much in government organisations. Nonetheless, innovation and technical progress is a key part of every CIO’s portfolio.

Perhaps that is the key insight: every CIO has the same broad set of portfolio responsibilities, but with multivarious priorities depending on the specific organisation, sector and even country. They also vary over time and circumstances. Many CIOs entered their employing organisations with a renewal or restructuring missions. As they progressed and succeeded, the emphasis changed to keeping the ship on a straight course. Rather more than keeping the lights on, but nonetheless a kind of high level care and maintenance role.

It is often suggested that the job of a CIO nowadays is rather like an in-house buyer and broker of services. That is fair enough and becoming a basic element of the portfolio. Choosing and specifying cloud services, for example, is clearly a significant responsibility, strategically and practically. So is choosing and managing hands-on managed service providers and the relationships with them. Almost all in-house IT departments today are short of specialist talent, which has been hoovered up through the recession by specialised outsourcers. Today’s attitude is very much recruit what we need, employ skills that are not mission-critical from trustworthy suppliers.

One good example that has been growing apace is analytics. In-house teams are invariably mixed because they need skills in the science of analytics, domain and organisation knowledge and IT expertise. Throw a bunch of bright young (usually) people with that skills mix and they will yield positive, valuable results. From a CIO point of view, that is an area where talent should be employed and developed as opposed to anything routine or capable of being automated or outsourced.

The introduction of machine learning or AI into the organisation is another rapidly growing line of development where the CIO is the appropriate person in the C-suite to have responsibility for cultivating and coordinating to deliver new added value.

“The CIO is back on top. In many if not most organisations today, IT is not simply a support structure for the activities—it is the organisation in a quite literal sense”

As well as re-surfacing at the top of the ICT roles, not that the lead position had ever really gone away and indeed is still going through a period of competition, the CIO role has matured into something slightly old-fashioned or traditional, dare we say? The traditional manager has always combined skills and experience with leadership qualities, a facility for persuasion and subordinate development – epitomised by delegation – that all amounts to people skills and good judgement as well as technical knowledge. Employment consultants and HR often adopt the term ‘emotional intelligence’ into their own jargon, but in truth it is perfectly valid if a tad pretentious.

We recently came across an advert or job spec for a job in a Dublin-based multinational HQ, looking for a ‘rising star’ as CIO/CTO. It emphasised that ‘excellent stakeholder management’ would be the key. The technical qualifications were simply 3+ years in a senior role and ‘a broad overview of technology and emerging trends’.

That is an old-fashioned management talent search with current jargon added, not a tech skills sieve. But it does reveal how smart companies see the CIO role today. As do we.

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