In the past, IT was a mysterious world of fiendishly difficult technology looked after by experts who seemed to speak a different language from the rest of the company.
The CIO was in total control of how technology was used and who used it — which was critical at the time, as it was an expensive resource that had to be managed appropriately.
But things have changed a great deal since then, and the pace of change is picking up. So the role of the CIO needs to change as well.
Almost everyone has a computer at home these days, and it’s often more powerful than the one we have at work. IT permeates our lives, both at work and at home, through email, internet, calendars, messaging, word processing, photo sharing, social media and video calls.
Most of us no longer have the cautious and reverential attitude towards IT that was common 20 years ago. Now, we regard IT as a tool that should simply work, not a god to be served or force to be feared.
Technology itself is becoming more intuitive and accessible.
Over the past eighteen months, cloud services have become much more mainstream, with providers like Google and Amazon giving direct, easy access to all sorts of capabilities that corporate IT departments are perceived to be reluctant or unable to provide.
If an employee wants to analyse data in a way that’s not possible with company-provided tools, they can use a web-based business intelligence application to do the job.
If you ask them about data security, they’ll probably argue that putting data on the web is no more risky than copying it onto a memory stick to take home with them.
If the office email system is down, people will switch to their personal email instead because it is so fundamental to their jobs that they can’t manage without it.
In scenarios like these, people are judging security in real-world terms, but they may not be getting it right.
What’s a CIO to do?
One option is for the CIO to put stronger controls in place — restricting access to external applications and reinforcing security measures.
For most organisations that’s unlikely to be a successful approach, as it risks harming the agility and competitiveness of the business. In an industry where security and control are critical, this type of approach to guaranteeing security may actually drive competitive advantage.
An alternative strategy is for the CIO to become an enabler of the business — a supporter of the new technology that’s proving increasingly critical to the business. At the same time, they can become an educator who can explain things clearly to business users, such as where the real security risks lie, or what the true costs of some of these new technology tools are.
Some enablers take a DIY approach, making a range of tools and services available to the organisation supported by knowledgeable staff who act as trusted advisors.
Others go a step further with a studio approach, orchestrating a mix of IT and business skills and services to produce innovative solutions that meet increasingly sophisticated business needs.
Communicating with business leaders
With so many organisations relying on IT to deliver and fulfil the services they provide to their customers, it is increasingly seen as a core part of the organisation’s value chain that contributes to revenues and growth — no longer just a backroom function.
This sheds a new light on IT and the IT budget, as organisations ask themselves How much they need to invest in IT, in order to achieve competitive business advantage.
These discussions take place in the boardroom so, as CIO you need to position yourself as a partner of the business, with the ability to influence the board.
Your ability to do this will depend on understanding the strategy and objectives of the business, and communicating with board members in a language they’ll understand.
CIOs are also becoming vital contributors to corporate governance, driving ethical and sustainable business practices in the way they source and provision IT services.
The ultimate step is for the CIO to become a member of the board, held accountable and rewarded according to business results in the same way as the rest of the board.
Re-imagining the future
It’s time for CIOs to decide what they want their role to be in the future, based on what the business expects from them and how IT needs to evolve to meet business objectives.
Making that choice sooner rather than later — developing your business acumen and ensuring you act in the best interests of the business — is critical, to avoid being bypassed or pushed too far down the hierarchy to have a real voice in the organisation’s future.
CIOs who are ready to be enablers for their organisations — and to accept the challenge of being measured on business results — will gain the respect from the business that many have been seeking for years. And as a result, many more of them will take that ultimate step of becoming fully fledged members of the board.
Liz Benison is vice president and COO for the UK and Ireland region of CSC