by Ade McCormack

CIOs are reaching the Summit

Nov 15, 20125 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

At the recent CIO Summit I was curious to hear what was playing on the mind of the CIO during this period of economic transition.

Here are some are some of the key themes I picked up on:

Leadership not just management

It was good to hear that CIOs are looking beyond the Gantt chart to focus on the people-element of their role. Making the work place one that staff look forward to being in implies that at least for some organisations the CIO is starting to think beyond firefighting as a modus operandi.

Humility has entered the frame with the idea that just because I am the leader I am not necessarily all knowing and infallible. The concept of apologising was introduced as was an explicit declaration of weaknesses. The latter being the first step to building a robust leadership team.

Time to be a Chief Wisdom Officer

Strategic and political awareness

Ensure that all IT department activities align with business strategy. Capitalise on changes in business leadership and business strategy to increase your chances of becoming a transformation agent.

Do not fight the CEO. You will come second. Be very clear on what they want but develop an understanding of what they really need. By listening closely to the market it is possible to build a compelling case when looking to influence the CEO. Timing is important, so you have to be sensitive to when the CEO is most likely to have the mental capacity to consider your recommendations.

Five faces of transformation


Focus on outputs and value rather than cost. However it was acknowledged that cost is much easier to measure than revenue-generating initiatives so the tendency is to revert back to cost management. I would certainly add that this needs to be addressed otherwise the role of the CIO will be seen solely in the context of cost rather than value.

An agile approach to software development also promotes a focus on what the business values rather than what the IT function enjoys or finds easier to do. The Kanban method is being successfully adopted to:

  • Provide business focus.
  • Highlight progress.
  • Ensure that developers are not overwhelmed by a unstoppable conveyor belt of ‘things to be done’.

Lean IT principles were also mentioned as a way to squeeze extra value from seemingly under-resourced IT functions.

Such approaches will over time eliminate ‘failure demand’, ie IT department-induced failures. The notion of having the time to step back from the forest fire and review the approach to tackling it suggests a growing maturity in the manner in which IT functions are managed.

It was good to hear that a constant focus on improvement is central to the thinking of many CIOs.  It would appear that the smart CIOs do not see cost cutting as a threat to their kingdom, but rather have embraced the discipline regardless of economic phase.

Yanking the value chain

Emerging themes

Broadly the hot themes are mobility, social media, the cloud and big data. These appear to be technology-focused and indeed they are underpinned by technology. However it would be wiser for the IT function to think of these in the context of how the world is changing. The changing nature of work and the empowerment of workers are important trends that the IT function needs to keep its eye on.

A big challenge for CIOs is how they keep up with trends, whether they are technological, business, macro-economic, political or even anthropological. This question is still to be answered. Though it was suggested that developing good relations with vendors was a way in which to keep on top of trends and is also a good source of innovative ideas.

Can a CIO be a visionary?

Getting social

We heard how the use of enterprise social media has played a key role in knitting together the communities of two merged firms. We are no longer hearing the word ‘security’ yelled involuntarily in response to the phrase ‘social media’. In fact security got very little attention on the agenda. This implies it is a given as are the social media-related implications and so is an operational detail rather than a career breaking / making issue.


Again it was recognised that people are at the centre of what CIOs do. It was acknowledged on a number of occasions that successful transformation is delivered through people rather than strategy or technology implementation.

It makes sense for the CIO to focus on mobility rather than mobile devices or informed, fast and shared decision making rather than big data. That is not to say technology is no longer important, it simply appears that CIOs recognise that technology is the means to the end rather than the end itself.

Final observation

There was no discussion around the role of the CIO and whether they should be on the board or not. I saw this as a positive because such themes can almost become philosophical and thus removed from ‘how it is’. It also suggests, at least with the presenters, that they have found their place in the organisation which enables them to do good work regardless of whether they have a key to the executive washroom.

This struck me as a positive shift in confidence.  It would appear that many of our CIOs have reached the summit and are well placed to lead the next generation of IT leaders to similar heights.

About the author:

Ade McCormack is a Financial Times columnist, speaker and adviser on the digital economy (