by Varsha Chidambaram

The CIO Role 2014: The Way Forward

Dec 15, 20138 mins

While IT has established its strategic importance within the business, the CIO role itself still has a long way to go. A CIO think-tank discusses the way forward.

The CIO role is having a bit of a mid-life crisis. According to CIO columnist Thornton A. May, the CIO role completes 32 years of being in existence this year. The title is probably not more than a decade and a half old in India. You’d think it is a bit pre-mature for the role to be in a serious crisis. After all, the CIO role is still the new-kid-on-block compared to the more established titles of CMO and CFO.  But now consider these trends: The growth of IT as-a-service, new cloud delivery models, and the increasing maturity of technology providers, have all transformed IT. From a feared black box that could be operated by only the most skilled technologists, IT has become a user-friendly service that can be paid and used as per business needs. Increasingly, businesses are deeming it fit to bring someone with a business background to head IT for them. Cases of shadow IT, where other departments bypass IT to get their job done, are also on the rise. On the other hand, CXOs are becoming so tech-savvy that IT is lapsing into merely executing tasks, with the vision and strategy driven only by the business. Add to that the fact that—even after 32 years—the CIO doesn’t have a seat at the board and that a majority of IT leaders are still more comfortable talking about technology and the datacenter than business goals. And most tellingly, IT budgets are shrinking and are being embedded into line-of -business budgets—making business users the deciders of the IT roadmap of the enterprise.  Sounds like a crisis.   So, what’s a CIO do?  “There is no one magic formula or a recipe that can be applied to this situation,” says Arun Gupta, CIO, Cipla, who has blogged actively on the subject of the CIO role. “The answers varies depending on two things primarily. The first is the person playing the role of the CIO and his standing in the company. The second is the culture of the organization.” That IT is strategic to business is a given. However, the CIO role still needs to ensure that it takes on the same strategic hue that IT has acquired. And there are more than one ways of getting there. Here are some. Get a Line Responsibility  One of the most tried-and-tested ways of breaking the CIO role’s identity conundrum is by taking on additional non-IT responsibilities. “One way to make the role of the CIO more strategic is to take on an additional responsibility besides IT. This could be the leadership role of a department or function within the business or it could be even the membership of a committee tasked with an important mission,” says Anantha Sayana, vice president and head-corporate IT at L&T. “If it’s a profit center responsibility, even better.”  But as Gupta points out, the additional role only makes sense if you believe that that IT by itself does not bring enough to the table even when executed well. It also suggests that the CIO has spare time despite the complexities involved in running the IT organization and managing projects. Why is this being expected from the CIO when most of the other CXOs are accepted doing just their role?  That’s because the CIO is not the CMO or a CFO, despite being a peer. The CIO does a great job of enabling the business, but a very bad job of talking about it. Taking additional responsibility is a great way of demonstrating the value of IT and its impact on business outcomes and saves the role from being relegated to that of an adviser or executer of projects, or worse, as a ‘support’ to the business. Taking on additional responsibility is an opportunity for CIOs to talk business and be heard. It is the means to an end—the end being a seat at the management board. “If given a responsibility or a new or additional role, then there is clear accountability and maybe rewards, too, albeit based on an outcome,” says Sunil Mehta, senior VP and area systems director (Central Asia), JWT. And that brings us to the second point.  Get a Seat at the Table How do you get an invite to sit at the management board is the million rupee question.  “The invitation will not come by itself, it needs to be earned. You need credibility that’s built over years, expertise that’s demonstrated repeatedly with past projects, and networks within the enterprise that are nurtured,” says Sayana.   It is about having a good track record. But it’s also about having an understanding of the business. Not just a process-oriented understanding, but knowledge of the real issues that impact revenue, an enterprise’s brand, and the customers of the business. Did the CIO come out with solution that gave the business an extra? Did the CIO increase revenue or improve cost advantages or expand the customer base, while lowereing marketing costs? Did the CIO proactively demonstrate the value that IT could deliver to business? Did he come out with an annual report that talks about the investments in IT and the value it gave back to the enterprise—in business terms? If you’re CEO thinks you did any of the above, she will need you by her side when she takes the next important business decision. Getting on the board is a huge boost to a CIO’s career, but it comes with a set or responsibilities and power. And like Mehta says, it’s not like a seat at the UN Security Council which is permanent. One needs to keep proving themselves to retain that seat.  Get Cozy with Other CXOs Getting a seat at the table will get you closer to the CEO. But before that CIOs needs to communicate and sell the ‘business case of IT’ to their peers. The CIO has always been considered a ‘lesser’ CXO. That’s not a perception shared by the other CXOs alone, it’s also driven by the inherent insecurities of the CIO himself. This insecurity stems largely from their inability to speak the language of the business, which in turn alienates them in the eyes of their peers. “Not only does the CIO need to create such opportunities (demonstrate business value, take on additional responsibilities, etcetera) they also need to garner support from the rest of the enterprise to succeed. Based on past experience, such a move (taking non-IT responsibilities) is often resisted strongly by other parts of the company who would like you to remain relegated to the technology/support/enabler role,” says Gupta.  “That has a lot to do with the inherent insecurities of the CIO, given that it is a relatively new role that has grown in importance fairly quickly.” says Gupta. Therefore the CIO has a lot of proving to do.    “Have a casual chat with your line of business heads and understand his pain points. And then suggest how IT can help,” advices Tarun Pandey, vice president-IT, Aditya Birla Financial Services. “It may not be easy to have this conversation, but the initiative has to be made by the CIO. After all, he’s the new kid on the block without any friends.”  Develop Business-IT Expertise within Your Staff Another thing CIOs have not been particularly good at is developing a clear succession strategy. If you are going to move to greener pastures, you need to have a contingency plan as to who will fill your shoes. This will accomplish multiple things. First, it will prepare the CIO to take on more responsibility outside of IT. Second, it will keep the CIO out of pure, ‘hands-on’ tech. And third, it will build a succession plan for the IT team that will make it easier for the CIO to make the leap to business. “If you don’t have a succession plan, you will stay where you are because you are critical to the role,” says Gupta. “A leader is as good as his or her team. If you have stars, they will shine and you will bask in the light. If they are dark holes, they will suck up energy and create crisis for you to manage,” says Gupta. He believes this is the right time for CIOs to push the concept of business relationship managers. The idea of embedding IT staff members into the business isn’t new, in fact, it’s been abused in the past. But, when it’s executed well, it can reap great rewards. “My experiments in this direction in my previous company resulted in growth for all of them (IT staffers) as well as higher satisfaction among the business. That said, the CIO has to sometimes reign in the team when they want to run away with their enthusiasm or want to please everyone,” he says. If the CIO cannot let go and disassociate himself from the humdrum of technology he—and the role—will stagnant. And the CIO will be easily replaceable.  Is the CIO role strategic enough? Will it grow out of IT? Or will it perish ? Only you can tell.  Varsha Chidambaram is principal correspondent. Send feedback on this feature to