by Alan Mumby and Caroline Sands

Is the CIO relevant?

Sep 13, 20114 mins
CareersCloud ComputingIT Leadership

A long time ago now, in 2003 Nicholas Carr wrote an article Does IT Matter? which occasioned much heated debate about the role of IT and its practitioners.

The article is often cited because it actually covered many different dimensions of the IT environment. One of his premises was that IT is commoditising and therefore has only occasional strategic advantage for the very fast movers or for those with other unique and complementary attributes.

Highly refined, super-slick business processes can be a competitive advantage, but rarely last in that state as they are easily copied.

In any event the slick business process is the responsibility, generically of the COO.

If this premise is remotely true therefore why is there continual pressure for the CIO to get a board seat. Is it about IT or is it about something else?

Ego maybe. Why should the CIO sit at the top table if they are merely maintaining the status quo with adequate information technology but not being a source of competitive advantage?

In any event, if flawless process is an output then the custodian of the wider process should be the board participant responsible and that in many cases means the COO.

If this is valid and it’s a simple logical step to take, then it would be in all IT leaders interests to focus on business outputs rather than just technology.

It would require them to try and assume some of the role of the COO.

To focus on continuous process improvement and what it generates for the business rather than wiring. This is essential if there is to be any room for a CIO aspiring to get to the board table.

If the role isn’t focussed in the right place, change the role.

If there is a single source of evidence that most IT leaders are pointing in the wrong direction its is their CV’s.

Very few, say one in twenty, even tangentially allude to the value their labours have added to the enterprise or even focus on the quantum of improvement in outputs.

Most talk about how big budgets and how onerous responsibilities are, rather than how performance has improved. If you are not looking at moving forward then a seat on the Board will be a long time coming.

This impact of making this shift is that other IT roles should ideally change too.

For example, the technical architect who determines if the wiring will work, is theorising in a limited time-box if they cannot anticipate how the business process may change.

If it is not too much of a stretch of imagination to take, a technical architect with an MBA could prove to be a very useful asset. They would be able to shape business context, process and underlying technology, or at least help drive the thinking with line-of-business experts.

How many architects do we find with MBA’s? They are extremely rare.

Another consequence surrounds innovation. Sometimes the province of IT, mostly not explicitly the province of any particular individual, innovation firmly needs to be co-driven by a smart business person with an uber-geek compatriot.

Provided they can work together they need to push the boundaries of what is desirable and possible. Together. Its no longer an Us-and-Them, its just an Us.

Innovation is the remaining source of short-lived competitive advantage through the use of IT and process.

Its not just IT, it is how IT is deployed that matters and that must address the whole process — hence the duality of the innovation effort.

Outsource commodity servicesto the best price-performance provider as there is unlikely to be lasting advantage there.

Carr was right, this basic stuff is now so commoditised in many instances, it is even being given away free.

Of course, bad IT can be a source of lasting competitive disadvantage or even terminal danger, so in many cases IT leaders protect the downside rather than drive the upside and that is why so many conventional IT teams exist.

But its only a matter of time before they are outsourced as well.

So in our view there is little room for the CIO as we know the role today.

There is the technologically grounded COO who focuses on process with IT as a component of it, most technology being outsourced, bar the esoteric and truly unique, with innovation driven by a small team of bright things with a blend of technology and commercial nous in equal part.

Even the last bastion of the geek, technical architecture needs a much needed injection of business know-how to be truly effective.

Alan Mumby and Caroline Sands are recruitment specialists at Odgers Berndtson

Pic: ChrisL_AKcc2.0