The role of the CIO: Doing a job vs. the job

The role of the CIOis a perennial debate if ever there was one. But talk of CIOs adopting a more strategic role is, in most cases, purely academic.

Some CIOs are perceived to adopt a similar mindset to many football managers: focusing on winning trophies now, rather than building a team that will win trophies in the future once the manager has moved on. Most CIOs are very good at delivering quick fixes and short term ROI (which is what they're often hired to do), but some find it harder to prove their ability to deliver long term value for the business because this would mean delaying some of the short term benefits.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for CIOs seeking to prove the strategic value they can bring to the business is not a lack of skills or ability, but the circumstances under which they are hired. The average tenure of the CIO is just three to four years, most having been hired to do a particular job (for example to fix a problem, manage change or cut costs) rather than the job. The usual pattern is to do that job (or fail to do it) and then move on to another company to do another specific job: this stop-start approach is a serious hurdle in the road to aligning IT with business goals. While this kind of 'strategy' may be dictated by other members of the C-Suite, rather than being a failure of the CIO him or herself, there are ways in which CIOs can challenge this convention.

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The first thing a CIO needs to do is secure a solid understanding of the business problem that they've been tasked with or asked to fix. For example, many CIOs are brought in because the company has been spending too much money on IT, or needs to consolidate its datacentres, or have IT projects over running on budget and deadlines, etc etc. Most CIOs are more than capable of understanding and fixing these kinds of problems, but these are IT problems, not business problems. A CIO who understands the business context of these problems is much more likely to 'fix' them in a way that will deliver long-term strategic value for the business. For example, a CIO might be brought in to finish an enterprise infrastructure consolidation project that has drastically exceeded its budget and fallen behind deadline. The CIO with the football manager mindset will find ways to quickly, cheaply and successfully bring the project to a close. A more strategic CIO, however, might seek to understand why the company is seeking to consolidate its enterprise infrastructure and what its mid to long term growth plans are. By understanding the infrastructure that the company might require in three years from now, the CIO might adopt a scalable consolidation strategy that takes a little longer or costs a little more, but will preclude the company from needing to repeat the project all over again when it outgrows the infrastructure.

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