The strategic CIO


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We all like to think of ourselves as being ‘strategic’.

CIO’s annual 'State of the CIO 2016' survey found that “IT executives tend to be optimistic that their roles will eventually become more strategic”. Specifically, “68 percent indicated they would be focused on growth-oriented activities” in three to five years. Respondents held a similar expectation in CIO’s 2015 survey. They will probably do the same next year. Being ‘more strategic’ is a career requirement for many of us.

The problem here is understanding what ‘being strategic’ actually means. “Growth-oriented activities” can cover just about anything for the modern CIO. Being strategic translates as ‘having a strategy’ which means knowing what a strategy is in the context of your specific domain. I teach a strategic thinking class and see people have all sorts of trouble understanding what strategy means to them.

Richard Rumelt, ‘the strategist’s strategist’, gives us the starting point in his 2011 book ‘Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’:

“The core content of a strategy is a diagnosis of the situation at hand, the creation or identification of a guiding policy for dealing with the critical difficulties and a set of coherent actions”

For CIO’s to be more strategic, they will need to have identified the critical elements of their environment. This often comes down to what frame the CIO is using to explain what is going on in their world and why. This is not a straightforward exercise. The nexus of cloud, digital, mobile, social and analytics technologies have changed the world of the CIO irrevocably. The identity of the CIO in relation to the rest of the enterprise is in flux.

Every CIO has the opportunity to become more strategic in 2016. Their challenge is in identifying those few areas where, if they concentrate sufficient force, they can achieve a breakthrough success.Rohan Light, Decisv


In her 2015 book ‘The New IT’ Jill Dyche identified six archetypes based on the individual’s focus areas, structures and behaviour:

  • The Tactical CIO keeps the lights on
  • The Order Taking CIO masters the art of release management
  • The Aligning CIO becomes intimate with evolving business initiatives
  • The Data Provisioning CIO manages data as an asset
  • The Brokering CIO builds a strong technology ecosystem
  • The IT Everywhere CIO shifts the control of technology to those who use it

Each of these archetypes will apply a different strategy. A strategic CIO is a person who has effectively diagnosed their domain, where effective means they can successfully intervene. We live in a business culture where we associate the executive with being the mistress of her domain but this is less common than we’d like to think.

In his 1997 book ‘The Innovators Dilemma’, Clayton Christensen wrote about the resource dependence theory of allocation within a firm:

“While managers may think they control the flow of resources in their firms, in the end it is really customers and investors who dictate how money will be spent because companies with investment patterns that don't satisfy customers and investors don't survive. Companies can succeed in disruptive technologies when their managers align their organizations with the forces of resource dependence, rather than ignoring or fighting them”

As Christensen observed:

“This is a most disquieting thought… we are there to manage, to make a difference, to formulate and implement strategy, to accelerate growth and improve profits. Resource dependence violates our very reason for being.”

This suggests that the ‘critical difficulties’ a strategic CIO must deal with may well be a line manager buried deep in the organisation that, in accordance with the prevailing doctrine of management culture, blocks the CIO’s strategic actions. Or it may be an influential supplier or partner. ‘Being strategic’ is contextual to the relationship between each CIO and her organisation. And in terms of the relative powerlessness that the theory of resource dependence implies, ‘being strategic’ for the CIO relates to how much change she is able to introduce into the system.

In this sense, every CIO has the opportunity to become more strategic in 2016. Their challenge is in identifying those few areas where, if they concentrate sufficient force, they can achieve a breakthrough success. This is important because I’ve seen many people fall prey to all sorts of mumbo jumbo when trying to develop strategic capability. We seem to believe we need some mystical array of frameworks, roadmaps and one pagers to get the title ‘strategic’.

This is what makes Rumelt’s formula so helpful. We can all apply it to what we do. A simple test for whether we have a strategy or not is if there is clarity around the obstacles preventing us from obtaining our aims. If there are no obstacles, then no strategy is required because we should have a clear path forward. Lack of specified obstacles indicates we have a set of stretch goals or a diffuse ‘future state’. But it won’t be a strategy.

If we assume for a moment that Christensen’s assessment of resource dependence is an operant factor in our business environment, how might one of Dyche’s strategic ‘Aligning’ CIO’s proceed with, say, the evolution of enterprise mobility?

Ovum’s Principal Analyst Richard Absalom laid out some of the main trends shaping this domain in his 2016 report ‘2016 Trends to Watch: Enterprise Mobility’:

“The overriding theme, and one that has an impact in practically every other area, is that the market is set to be driven by applications: enterprises are aiming to leverage them to exploit the full power of the mobile devices in the hands of employees, and supply-side vendors and service providers of all kinds are vying to meet that demand by supplying apps and app management and security solutions.”

Where there is any technology situation driven by apps in the hands of employees and fuelled by the full weight of supply-side forces, the first thing that a CIO will have to identify is the extent to which she can meaningfully intervene. Absalom stated:

“Following a period of heavy consolidation, the software space is becoming dominated by IT mega-vendors, and alongside major telecoms operators, these giant brands will use their reach and resources to take enterprise mobility management into the IT mainstream and grow the overall size of the market.”


Next: The aligning CIO

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Given this situation, our aligning CIO just isn’t going to be able to prevent powerful vendor forces from deploying consumerised applications into the enterprise. Dyche defines the function of the 'aligning CIO' as “Supporting business objectives of individual business units through technology”. One reason why consumerisation is proving successful is that the functional model of organisation is failing to satisfy business units’ technology needs. Hence the raison d’etre of the ‘aligning CIO’.

Taken together, the aligning CIO might choose to harness the powerful supply-side forces and the internal demand for consumerised technology and help solve an emergent problem: figuring out who pays for enterprise mobility applications. As Absalom notes,

“We also expect to hear the question over who pays for mobile usage – employer or employee – asked more in 2016. The prevalence of "bring your own device" (BYOD) and the willingness of many employees to use their own devices on their own dollar has made this a very pertinent question… The upshot of this trend is that we will see more integrated employee-employer solutions on offer from telecoms operators, though often developed through collaboration with their IT vendor partners.”

The big challenges always lie outside our sphere of business-as-usual.


The obstacles the CIO faces will cluster around financial rules of cost allocation, professional caution on the part of the business users, self-serving behaviour on the part of the vendor partner network and obsolete sections of the human resources policy. The technical challenges are already within the CIO's domain and can be solved from within the existing capability set of her people. The big challenges always lie outside our sphere of business-as-usual.

The strategic play for our aligning CIO becomes heading off at the pass the problem of how the enterprise handles expenditure on enterprise mobility platforms used by employees in pursuit of business objectives. The CIO assigns a team to work with vendors and service providers on security and integration issues. He or she hires several new business-facing professionals to embed with business units and shape up the use cases in the light of observed behaviour. The CIO works with the CFO and Chief People Officer on a peer-to-peer level and makes sure that they have the opportunity to appoint their own people into a cross-functional strategic work team to guide the whole process.

Being strategic means being specific, and being specific is contextual to who the CIO is, who he or she aspires to be and the vision for maintaining continued relevance in the face of significant external and internal forces that may be beyond the CIO's ability to control.

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Rohan Light worked at the enterprise level in Inland Revenue in a series of specialised roles in the risk, design, portfolio management and business group domains. He began to be consulted by business people on issues of strategy, management and execution, which led to the formation of Decisv. His formal strategy work led to teaching strategic thinking as an Associate at VUW’s Professional and Executive Development.

He cofounded the Enterprise Analytics Forum, a community of practice that meets to discuss issues relating to the fundamental challenges analytics poses to pre-digital business models. He extended his involvement in the analytics sector when he was appointed Chairman of the SAS Users of New Zealand.


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6 digital transformation success stories