by Scott Matey

The role of the CIO: Doing a job vs. the job

Jan 06, 2011
CareersIT Leadership

The role of the CIOis a perennial debate if ever there was one. But talk of CIOs adopting a more strategic role is, in most cases, purely academic.

Some CIOs are perceived to adopt a similar mindset to many football managers: focusing on winning trophies now, rather than building a team that will win trophies in the future once the manager has moved on. Most CIOs are very good at delivering quick fixes and short term ROI (which is what they’re often hired to do), but some find it harder to prove their ability to deliver long term value for the business because this would mean delaying some of the short term benefits.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for CIOs seeking to prove the strategic value they can bring to the business is not a lack of skills or ability, but the circumstances under which they are hired. The average tenure of the CIO is just three to four years, most having been hired to do a particular job (for example to fix a problem, manage change or cut costs) rather than the job. The usual pattern is to do that job (or fail to do it) and then move on to another company to do another specific job: this stop-start approach is a serious hurdle in the road to aligning IT with business goals. While this kind of ‘strategy’ may be dictated by other members of the C-Suite, rather than being a failure of the CIO him or herself, there are ways in which CIOs can challenge this convention.

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The first thing a CIO needs to do is secure a solid understanding of the business problem that they’ve been tasked with or asked to fix. For example, many CIOs are brought in because the company has been spending too much money on IT, or needs to consolidate its datacentres, or have IT projects over running on budget and deadlines, etc etc. Most CIOs are more than capable of understanding and fixing these kinds of problems, but these are IT problems, not business problems. A CIO who understands the business context of these problems is much more likely to ‘fix’ them in a way that will deliver long-term strategic value for the business. For example, a CIO might be brought in to finish an enterprise infrastructure consolidation project that has drastically exceeded its budget and fallen behind deadline. The CIO with the football manager mindset will find ways to quickly, cheaply and successfully bring the project to a close. A more strategic CIO, however, might seek to understand why the company is seeking to consolidate its enterprise infrastructure and what its mid to long term growth plans are. By understanding the infrastructure that the company might require in three years from now, the CIO might adopt a scalable consolidation strategy that takes a little longer or costs a little more, but will preclude the company from needing to repeat the project all over again when it outgrows the infrastructure.

The best CIOs make it their mission to gain an understanding of the business and the sector in which it operates: What drives growth? What are the market challenges? What regulations govern the way in which the business is run? CIOs with a business and financial background, or the ability to approach their role with a financial mindset, are more likely to ask the right questions and reach the right conclusions than those who have developed their business acumen ‘on the job’.

What’s more, CIOs need to recognise that (unless the company in question is an IT or service provider itself) that IT is a supporting service for the business. Of course, it’s important to understand where IT is failing itself, but an introspective look within the ‘four walls’ of IT could lead a CIO to miss the real problem. It’s more important to understand where IT is failing the business. Unless CIOs understand the job the business and its employees require IT to do, and where it is currently failing to do so, they’re unlikely to adopt the right strategies and have the desired business impact.

Six Characteristics Of Highly Successful CIOs

Once a CIO has identified the changes required within an organisation, it’s important to be able to articulate these to executive board along with a clear vision that demonstrates how business impact will be achieved and when. If a CIO presents a long term solution for what the board had considered a short term problem, it’s more important than ever to mange to results: identify key milestones and achievable targets that each have business impact, not just technical benefits. For this plan to be taken seriously by the rest of the C-Suite, the CIO must demonstrate a true understanding of the budgetary implications and present a clear plan of action that outlines who is accountable for its execution and how success or failure will be measured. Then, for it to be taken seriously by those expected to execute on it and those expected to use the technology provided, the CIO needs to raise his or her profile and establish a position of leadership within the company, but without being seen to be political. This can be a challenge for a CIO who has been hired to fix a short term problem, but can be overcome by communicating a clear vision, setting a consistent tone and demonstrating integrity and commitment.

Only by winning trust and respect at all levels of the business will a CIO be able to demonstrate short-term ROI while delivering longer term benefits to the business; and only by doing that will he or she be able to say that they have a truly strategic role within the business.

About the author: Scott joined GlassHouse Technologies UK as Managing Director in March 2010, when he moved from his role as Vice President of Service Product Management for GlassHouse Technologies US. Scott has nearly 15 years of IT consulting experience, working in nearly every role within the services industry.