Changing role of information chief

The traditional role of the chief information officer is disappearing as digital technology and outsourced services transform IT, writes Tom Brewster


Control. It’s something many crave and many fear losing. Those in charge of maintaining their employer’s computer systems have been obsessed with it since businesses came to rely heavily on machines.

But chief information officers (CIOs) now have to relinquish that control. The CIO is no longer the primary deliverer of new technologies. With their smartphones, tablets and all the useful applications sitting on them, workers are the ones introducing useful tools before CIOs have even heard of them.

Meanwhile, the cloud, where company systems and data can be managed by an outside party, has allowed businesses to outsource many of the maintenance functions of IT. While keeping the lights on screens remains part of the CIO’s role, it is no longer the number-one concern across IT chiefs as it used to be.

Losing control might seem terrifying to some. It wasn’t long ago that many CIOs feared their roles were becoming redundant, according to Graeme Hackland, IT director for the Williams Formula 1 racing team. “There was talk two years ago that the CIO role was going to die and there would be no need for an IT department,” says Mr Hackland. “That put a lot of CIOs in a position where they had to justify their role.”

This has led many to change their approach. With the rise of the technologically empowered employee and the cloud, CIOs have had to make use of other skills, such as strategy and financial abilities. That’s why many modern CIOs don’t have a technological background, says Mr Hackland. “There’s a trend now of CIOs not being IT people. Many of the best CIOs I know are not IT people,” he says.

As a result of this pivot, CIOs often carry more clout in the boardroom. They can help define strategy in an advisory role and solve business challenges, while supporting change through technology, weaving IT into the fabric of the organisation. Research from Vodafone UK, entitled The New IT Crowd, showed that of 300 IT chiefs and 300 non-IT business leaders, 86 per cent said IT is a strategic priority at board level, with 90 per cent agreeing IT is now an “important enabler of change”.

Mr Hackland, who works across the Williams’ team in their attempts to win championship points, says he is shocked people still talk about the need to align IT with the core aims of the business; it should simply be happening everywhere. “If you’re thinking of IT as separate to the business, it’s a big mistake,” he adds.

To impress others on the board, IT has to first look at business needs, with the technology coming later, he says. “Often there is technology that can help, either by capturing data, automating things or giving people tools that are easier to use so they can get answers quicker.

“Our race team strategist has to spend a percentage of his life just doing data manipulation, rather than actually analysing the data and trying to make decisions. If we can get rid of that task for him we can make our [track] times better.”

Over the next four years, 80 per cent of IT roles will see significant changes to the skills and responsibilities required

This heightened respect from those at the top means increased expectations. Rather than just provide a solution for a business problem, a progressive IT department is now tasked by the board with providing “transformative experiences”, whether for the business or its customers, says Alex Robinson, former CIO at Aviva and now an IT consultant.

Yet this shift will also land other executives with responsibility for technology, easing some of the load of the CIO, says Andrew Horne, managing director at business advisory firm CEB. “The way the chief executive and the board look at IT needs to change a little… responsibility has to be transferred. There’s a lot of value in heads of marketing playing around with data analytics, but they can’t then turn around and blame IT if something goes wrong,” says Mr Horne.

With the basement and the boardroom covered, CIOs should not forget the front line. Indeed, with the wider business bringing in emergent technologies, many of them advantageous for the business, IT should be flexible enough to support them and expand the use of those tools that prove valuable.

“In a company like ours, there are dozens of people who are specialists in their own areas who can come up with better solutions than I ever could,” adds Mr Hackland. “We can help those parts of the business that are using cloud services or want to use something we don’t know about. We can help them to get the best price, we can make sure the availability is there, we can broker those deals rather than being in control.”

To prove their worth, the CIO has to engage far more frequently with the workforce in a more amenable, personable manner. Where businesses are incorporating IT, socially inept tech leaders are not welcome, whereas the day of the hyper-social CIO is dawning. They will say yes to new technologies introduced by colleagues, rather denying them over concerns around control.

CIOs should now see user-oriented IT as the norm, says Mr Robinson. “This should be at the heart of how you do IT today,” he adds. “We’ve moved on from the days of ‘computer says no’.” This social aspect of the role can extend to the technology itself, he says, with many adopting social media tools for communicating with the wider workforce. Various vendors are offering Facebook-like platforms for the business, which the CIO can deploy to show both that they can provide familiar, attractive tools and listen to co-workers’ needs.

“With these social media platforms, you can see what people are talking about and interact. I’ve seen many good examples of blogs, using them to have a conversation,” Mr Robinson says. “This has a democratising effect. In the best cases, that has a really enduring impact. And it’s good for locating skills.”

CEB believes CIOs will create new roles within their team to improve collaboration with the front line, such as head of relationship management, social media evangelist and IT strategist. The member-based organisation says that over the next four years, 80 per cent of IT roles will see significant changes to the skills and responsibilities required.

Sadly, CIOs are still struggling to create such agile, affable IT teams, Mr Horne says. “We think the problem is getting worse; the need for change is getting more intense. We don’t think CIOs are thinking enough about who they’re employing.”

He urges IT chiefs to create a multi-year plan for changing the competencies of their staff, as there is a “need to radically change people in IT and how they behave”. There’s also a need to create the right environment in which IT staff think it’s OK to collaborate and take risks, he adds.

Despite all the talk of change, it’s apparent many businesses are still in the process of altering the role and perception of the CIO. As progressive as they would like to be, few have made the shift away from the maintenance-heavy roles they have traditionally occupied, says Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst firm Quocirca.

“Those who are making the grade have realised that the IT world has changed pretty dramatically. They listen a lot and then they go out and find a range of different possible solutions that could solve the business problems they have come across,” he says.

“So far, these CIOs are still few and far between. However, if they want to be taken seriously and make it to the board level, it is the only way they can operate in the future.”

TIMELINE

1970s

Chief information officer (CIO) emerges as a key role across organisations, tasked largely with upkeep of information systems, often controlled by centralised mainframe computer

1980s

CIOs have to manage the emergence of personal computers, which deliver vast productivity gains, but heightened complexity

1990s

With the dawn of the web and Windows PCs, CIOs are expected to define how business will reap the benefits of the internet

2000s

CIO increasingly expected to make an impact on business strategy and keep costs down following dotcom bubble bursts, while determining best ways to deal with boom in mobile devices

2014

Most progressive CIOs become agile business problem solvers, listening to the entire organisation to determine how technology can make it more competitive