by Mike Altendorf

Information for sale

Dec 19, 20114 mins
IT LeadershipIT StrategyTelecommunications Industry

I was recently asked to be one of a panel of judges tasked with putting together the annual CIO100 — a list of the UK’s top 100 CIOs from across all industries, due for release in January.

One of the subjects we discussed is the way in which the role that the CIO plays within an organisation is changing.

The combination of global economic pressures and the consumerisation of information have changed the focus for many businesses.

Recent high-profile examples of the dangers posed by public access to information (the pressure exerted on Nestlé around the use of child labour in chocolate production, for example, or the hacking scandal at News International) have highlighted the need for management teams to have much greater awareness about what is going on inside their organisations.

The key word here is information and it’s the CIO who can provide access to it.

This information is as much about identifying opportunities as it is about uncovering threats, and is usually an organisation’s biggest asset — an asset that the CIO effectively owns.

Two conversations with two very different people over the last week have brought into sharp focus the choice that is facing CIOs today.

First, the head of sales at a large software firm admitted in conversation that he no longer regarded the CIO as the primary decision-maker.

“The power is shifting,” he told me. “These days it’s the lines of business or one of the new roles that have evolved alongside the internet — head of innovation or head of channels. These are the folks with the money.”

A few days later I was chatting to a friend who is a non-executive director for a major utility.

“IT is just another utility these days,” he said. “If you can provide it quicker, cheaper and involve me as little as possible you’ve got the job.”

On the face of it these conversations would appear to highlight a threat to the CIO, but actually they present opportunity.

More than ever, IT purchasing decisions are being driven by the business. While it is true that the CIO can no longer afford to sit in an ivory tower, it also means that there is a real need for closer collaboration between business and technology.

This has been the case for a while but now it has become critical, and no serious business decision can be made without a real understanding of the information around it.

This means someone has to turn data into useful information, apply intelligence to that information to make it valuable and share it with the right people quickly and with context.

This, and the fact that infrastructure IT is now considered a utility, means that if the CIO is to prove his value, his primary role has to be that of information provider rather than facilities manager.

Talking to my friend at the software company it struck me that the CIO and the head of innovation should be one and the same thing, or at least two people working symbiotically.

Technology can be the catalyst for phenomenal business innovation because of the access to information that it provides, so to have the two working in silos makes no sense.

The fact that the business doesn’t see the CIO in that light is not an issue for the business: it’s a problem for the CIO.

There are those whose response to this challenge is to try and buy more time by convincing the business to invest in huge internal IT projects that will take years to complete while delivering very little real benefit.

That may guarantee them a job for the foreseeable future, but it certainly won’t earn them a place on the CIO100. At the end of the day they are simply helping to perpetuate the belief that internal IT departments are a costly, confusing black hole that sucks in profits and delivers little.

So what’s the solution? To a certain extent it is about changing the CIO mindset.

The CIO should no longer be about infrastructure — the role is now all about information. That is the CIO’s greatest asset and the thing that he or she can sell to the business.

I say ‘sell’ quite deliberately, because the other change in mindset should be the move away from technology to business.

As a business person the CIO sells information, and they alone can give the business the access to that information.

The focus needs to be on building that asset in the form of a world-class information service, supported by a collaborative business platform that also uses social tools to provide context and sentiment.

The CIO should become an entrepreneur in the information business.