CIOs must evolve to keep pace with new technologies

Continuous disruption is forcing companies to transform their IT at an accelerating pace, dramatically changing the role of the chief information officer


Who would want to be a chief information officer? The venerable job title should really be sacrosanct in a world where software and data is consuming the world. The reality is very different with many arguing that the old-fashioned CIO is obsolete or that a new breed of executive – the chief data officer or CDO – is subsuming the most important parts of the job.

Forrester, the research company, found that 45 per cent of companies have already appointed a CDO and a further 16 per cent plan to in the coming year.

“Should CIOs feel threatened by the rise of the chief data officer? Some may,” says Forrester’s Gene Leganza. “But in many cases, CIOs are only too painfully aware that they have too many things on their plate to give the data agenda the attention it needs.”

Even without data to worry about, those CIO plates are spinning very fast. Company employees have started to circumvent IT departments to find the best tools, often ones that can be downloaded straight to an iPhone or iPad. Meanwhile, IT departments have been inundated, walking the tight rope between serving the needs of staff, who still can’t work the printer, to those who have grown up in the web 2.0 world and wonder why they can’t use more advanced technology within the office.

Core elements of CIO's role

Digital disruption

Ian Stone, managing director of Anaplan in the UK and Ireland, says: “Digital disruption has made the business world move faster than ever. It has meant that CIOs have to enable their companies to plan and optimise performance in real time to support the business effectively. Until now, CIOs have had to rely upon inflexible planning systems built for another, slower era. The result? An explosion of spreadsheets across the enterprise – error prone, disconnected, non-collaborative, time consuming and insecure.”

The role of the CIO has to change as fast as the technology being used by the workforce – a trend that will only accelerate

Consider Slack, the enterprise messaging tool that has started to take the world by storm. Slack, which was built by the team behind Flickr, has transformed instant messaging into a collaboration tool that can be used by teams to share, archive and search data. The odd thing about Slack is that its users within organisations are often initially outside the IT department with agile teams adopting the new system long before the CIO has even heard of it.

Slack is bringing know-how and intelligence from the best consumer-facing digital companies into the workplace, and it reflects the CIO’s headache. “Ubiquitous and brilliant consumer technology and social media companies have not just raised the bar on how good technology can be, they have created intolerance to what they see as complaining IT departments,” says Phil Freegard, a partner at Infosys Consulting.

Key measures for CIOs

Adapting to new technology

That means the role of the CIO has to change as fast as the technology being used by the workforce – a trend that will only accelerate in a world of wearables and internet of things innovation.

Ben Dowd, business director at O2, says: “CIOs are traditionally known as the infrastructure guardians, the software and hardware gurus. But the role is significantly changing. It is no longer enough to focus solely on providing in-office IT equipment. Forward-thinking CIOs are harnessing technology to catalyse new ways of working that can disrupt traditional operating models and add real value to the bottom line.”

It is, of course, easy to argue that CIOs should be on the bleeding edge of the latest trends, but that ignores the huge task in managing legacy IT systems. A recent Vanson Bourne survey of 200 CIOs found, unsurprisingly, that 66 per cent of disruption and complexity was generated by the cloud. Yet next on the list was legacy IT and 89 per cent of those quizzed argued that it was a real challenge to simplify older systems while driving innovation. That requires a bi-modal approach which many cannot adopt.

This creates what those in the industry call the “CIO crevasse”. Craig Girvan, director and “scrum master” at IT company Headforwards, says: “The CIO in mature organisations is now in the crevasse between the rock and the hard place. On one hand, the CIO has gone to gemba – the real place work is done. In other words, they understand the goals and desires of their software and IT teams, and how these want to adjust their culture, process and practices to enable them to deliver better business value through their work.

“But, on the other hand, the CIO has the traditional organisation mindset of the rest of the board, holding back the very changes they know they need to action. Compare this CIO with the CIO of a startup and, no doubt, you will find the valley is not nearly so deep.”

Changing company culture

Toby Parkins, managing director of UKNetWeb, says change has to be fundamental throughout an organisation for a company to be truly agile and to react to the plethora of new technologies. “CIOs normally are convinced of the benefits of agile. The challenge is getting the people in between top and bottom to understand the benefits or how to implement it,” he says.

“It requires change at a cultural level, and in every organisation there will be a percentage of people who quickly adopt and another percentage who resist the change. Trying to achieve change internally with an existing organisation is just hard and requires huge levels of persistence.”

That elevates the CIO to the role of aggregator or cheerleader who can place a ladder across the crevasse and guide people over. Russell Reynolds, the recruitment company, used psychometric assessments of 28 of the world’s most successful CIO and argues that a new category – a “productive disruptor” – has emerged. “These are leaders who are agile, unafraid and extremely skilled at overcoming organisation inertia, who can bring disruption to a business and convince their colleagues to join them,” he concludes.

EVOLUTION OF THE CIO 

1950s-1960s

The CIO was better known as the “electronic data processing manager”, in charge of the enormous mainframe computer kept in the “glass house”

1980s

The era of distributed computing sees IT leaders whose stature within an organisation starts to grow

1990s

The CIO is born as computers move from number-crunching to enabling; the role is more strategic than the previous maintenance-led responsibilities of an IT leader, as security and compliance come to the fore

2010s

The CIO starts to have board-level influence and is increasingly seen as a “field general” by some companies