by Martin Veitch

When is a CIO not a CIO?

Jun 10, 20093 mins

To paraphrase a popular saying, opinions about what CIOs should be doing are like earholes — everyone has a couple. Or something like that. What I’m driving at is that the subject of the CIO role is like bullfighting. Not many people know much about it, but everyone has a strong opinion on it.You see how hard it is? Pinning down the exact characteristics of the genus ‘CIO’ is difficult.

IBM sponsored a good session on the CIO topic yesterday, heroically attended by a sprinkling of Her Majesty’s press, despite the fact that London under the unelected demagogue Bob Crow resembles a state in the early stages of diaspora with citizens clutching treasured possessions, scuttling to new destinations and cursing the name of one of the world’s greatest cities. The panel was strong and the debate was spirited — although ultimately little frustrating perhaps.

Former BT Research luminary Peter Cochrane played the role of agent provocateur, questioning the continued need for IT departments and suggesting that a new generation of technologists will sweep away the old, prescriptive control merchants who want to rein in technology deployment and usage. “I see CIOs wasting their time and lives providing services for the company when they should be doing something entirely different,” he suggested.They are “good at providing reliable stuff from unreliable components but there is no decision-support system and no reliable data model. Companies are really flying blind.”

Simon Post, the chief technology officer of Carphone Warehouse, took a contrary view to Cochrane, arguing that without operational excellence, the CIO has no right to a say in board-level business discussions. He argued that in a modern, malleable company like Carphone that has morphed befoire and will morph again, the information leader must stay flexible and ready to jump on the next strategic move. If executed correctly, Post believes that “the ability to get into the boardroom is greater than ever before” thanks to the pervasiveness of technology in enterprises

Head of the IBM CIO thought leadership programme, David Henderson, projected the optimistic view, where the change management skills of CIOs can help them assume wider tasks and “today’s CIO is well placed [to assume] ownership of business service provisioning, whether through shared services or some other mechanism”.

Last but not least, Peter Morris, business continuity coordinator at Debenhams Retail, broadly agreed, noting that the CIO “sees the company from procurement to sales and everything in between” and that “the recession is driving technology to help the bottom line”.

The fact is that all of these views are wrong… and all are right.The CIO needs to oversee operational excellence, even if it is through delegation. He/she must aid and underwrite business strategy — and sometimes help shape it. The CIO stands fair to achieve greater things. On the other hand, the CIO shouldn’t get hung up on operations at the expense of innovation. They need to know that their place is in providing business services rather than becoming a self-elected ideas generators. The CIO is at the heart of things but then, how many CIOs do you know that have become CEOs?

The fact is that the CIO role is multi-headed and hard definitons of what they are doing, and what they should do, are pointless. CIOs themselves know this and act according to their instincts and their environment. Enough said (by me at least) about that ancient chestnut ‘the role of the CIO’.