When Philip Clarke took over as the chief executive of retail titan Tesco in March 2011, his promotion helped put an end to one of the longest-running boardroom gags: that CIO stands for ‘career is over’.
If the former CIO at one of the UK’s most successful companies can go on to reach the top spot, it shows that the role can give the holder experience that makes them eligible for overall business leadership.
According to Barbara Dossetter, programme director at professional group CIO Connect, the job of IT leader gives an unparalleled viewpoint of the overall operations of the organisation, and as such it is increasingly seen as an essential stop-off for ambitious young executives. “It’s becoming one of the must-have positions for would-be chief executives,” she says.
But while it is true that there are some organisations where the CIO is invited to contribute to corporate strategy, there are others where it is still a chiefly functionary role, says Kate Hanaghan of K2 Advisory.
“How the CIO is perceived typically comes down to whether IT is regarded as being strategic,” she says. Some management boards still perceive IT to be little more than a cost base, but where boards understand the value that IT can bring to their business, there is far more scope for the IT chief to branch out.
As this suggests, it is misleading to talk about the CIO position as though it is a single, defined role that is consistent across organisations.
In fact, there are many roles that a CIO may be expected to serve, depending on the culture and circumstances of their employer. Budding executives may find that they have to serve one or more of these at any time. Discussed below are some of the most common interpretations of the CIO role.
The back office custodian
Historically, the dominant interpretation of the CIO role, and the ultimate apogee of the technologists’ career, has been as a glorified systems administrator. The senior IT decision-maker’s job was to keep the IT infrastructure running, and little more.
In organisations where this is still the dominant view, there will be little opportunity for the CIO to get involved in strategic leadership. However, there are still opportunities to use the role to prove one’s leadership skills.
“If the CIO can demonstrate that the role they play is cutting costs, they can enhance their credibility,” says Hanaghan.
By the same token, even in more enlightened organisations, it is not a role that can be neglected. “Without a strong track record, CIOs aren’t going to be invited to take on more strategic projects.”
Innovator in chief
The polar opposite of the back office custodian, and a highly sought-after CIO role, is that of the ‘chief innovation officer’.
The need for executive-level focus on new technologies and business practices is well recognised, at least among CIOs themselves. A recent survey by recruitment consultant Harvey Nash found that almost three-quarters of global CIOs believe that without embracing innovative new technology, their companies would lose market share.
Steve Chambers, CIO for Visa Europe, is perhaps the model IT innovator, having earned his spurs with eye-catching projects such as the introduction of a pan-European payment platform. That platform processes around ten billion transactions each year and has achieved 100% uptime since 2008 – the kind of success story that cements an IT chief’s reputation.
That success has allowed Visa’s IT department to take a leading role in the organisation’s go-to-market strategy, supporting new products such as its payWave wireless payment card and the smartphone payment system that it is currently developing.
It is perhaps not all that surprising to see innovation forming such a central tenet of Chambers’s brief: the payment-processing market is a data-heavy industry, so it is only natural that the companies operating in the market depend on IT. Similarly, the CIO is more likely to be expected to innovate in industries with more intense competition.
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Agent of change
Related to the ‘chief innovation officer’ role is that of the CIO as manager, enabler and implementer of organisational change. Although not specifically IT related, there are good reasons why the chief information technologist should serve this purpose.
“IT has a greater involvement than ever in business change,” says Dave Aron of analyst company Gartner. Many of the transformational events impacting on business have a technology component to them – whether that is cloud computing, cost cutting or pushing the boundaries of product design.
IT projects, meanwhile, touch on so many corners of the business that CIOs have been forced to become adept at balancing the requirements of the various stakeholders within the organisation. They are also well practised at measuring the ongoing impact of long-lasting projects.
This ‘change agent’ role is an opportunity for the CIO to demonstrate that lessons learnt while overseeing IT projects can be transferred to other fields. Of course, their ability to do that will depend on whether they developed a sufficient understanding of the requirements and objectives of the organisation’s various departments during their time in IT.
Gun for hire
While some CIOs are long-serving IT experts that have come up through the ranks of an organisation, others are brought in as short-lived troubleshooters, tasked with effecting a rapid turnaround within the IT function. Once this work is done, they are not normally expected to stick around.
A textbook example of the ‘gun for hire’ school of IT leadership is former US federal government CIO Vivek Kundra. His eye-opening account of his time in the position, published after he’d left to take up an academic fellowship at Harvard University, sheds light on the frustrations and rewards that such roles can offer.
Kundra describes his first-day shock of being handed a bundle of documents detailing $27 billion worth of IT projects. Not one of them had a clear timeline for delivery.
The ability to bring order to an out-of-control function is a key skill for the hired gun. Kundra focused on introducing IT dashboards, to ensure that every cent of taxpayers’ money being spent by IT was closely monitored. “We knew that federal IT would stay mired in the Dark Ages if we didn’t also embrace innovative, lightweight technologies and leverage shared services,” he writes.
As far as contributing to strategy and ultimately rising to the CEO spot, this role is too short-lived for that. But the kind of executive that thrives in this kind of position will most likely seek to move on once the choppy waters have settled.
The term ‘chief information officer’ was coined in order to emphasise the primacy of information over technology, but for many CIOs technology is still the main focus of their working lives.
That is not the case for Daniel Marion, head of information and communication at European football governing body UEFA.
The word ‘technology’ is quite deliberately absent from Marion’s job title. His role is to deliver the information and communications strategy for the organisation. “It is a technology agnostic role,” he says. “UEFA is here to deliver football competitions, not build data centres.”
UEFA demands timely and accurate access to the information they need – information about ticketing or which officials are running the line in its Champions League tournament. What that means in practice is setting information management policies and collaborating with the organisation’s suppliers to ensure that information is secure and readily available.
“I don’t get a second chance,” says Marion. “If we make a mistake for a major event, that’s it – it’s gone. I need my information to be perfect.”
The emergence of cloud computing may make Marion’s type of role more common, where the IT chief lets go of the technology and focuses on the information.
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Thanks to their involvement in applications and information management projects, CIOs have a unique view of the business processes that flow between departments and across organisational barriers. They are therefore prime candidates for taking responsibility for the measurement, management and improvement of those processes.
An example of the CIO as process engineer is Peter Clarke of the Isle of Man Government. All public services on the island – including, education, policing, health, transport and tax – are run by the local administration. It is in effect, says Clarke, doing the same job as the UK government but with a fraction of the budget.
Clarke’s job, therefore, has been to create an IT platform via which information can be delivered to the right person, at the right time, at the right stage of the process they are participating in. “To deliver services for 80,000 people really pushes us to collaborate and share at every stage,” he says.
He has achieved that by collaborating with functional divisions such as HR and finance, and agencies such as health and police to define processes using a standard set of applications. Business processes were effectively defined by the IT organisation.
This has helped the Isle of Man to reduce costs through standardisation, and the information sharing has been dramatically improved. Hospital staff now receive details on patients and the treatment provided by paramedics even before they have come through the hospital doors.
The process-driven CIO may not suit all organisations – where internal politics favour personal fiefdoms there can be staunch resistant to any external interference with processes. But where chief executives recognise the benefits of using IT to streamline operations, the CIO process engineer can thrive.
A formula for CIOs
Having identified some of the more common CIO roles, is it possible to guess which one an organisation needs from the outside?
There was some indication that it might be in Harvey Nash’s recent CIO survey. The survey discovered that CIO-as-innovator was most likely to be found in industries such as financial services, transport and logistics, retail and information technology.
However, Gartner’s Aron strikes a note of caution. “There is often, wrongly in my view, an assumption that CIOs in financial services will be innovators,” he says. “Frequently, firms in the financial services industry will invest heavily in IT, but it doesn’t mean that they’re all looking for innovation.”
Aron says that the industry in which an organisation operates is unlikely to predict what kind of CIO they want or need. Even the subsectors within – reinsurance companies, high street banks, foreign exchange traders – have different business goals and therefore requirements from IT.
“Many of the CIOs in financial services are working for extremely conservative organisations,” he adds. “The last thing they want is an innovator.”
K2’s Hanaghan agrees that industry is no use as a predictor of CIO role. The only sure-fire means of predicting what type of CIO an organisation would want is to know that organisation’s culture and strategic goals, she says.
Culture and business circumstances will change over time, and so an organisation is unlikely to need the same kind of CIO in perpetuity, says Aron. An IT executive seeking longevity and flexibility should therefore seek the skills pertaining to all of the roles listed in our taxonomy.
“No organisation will look for the same things from its CIO for ever, “ he says. “So there’s an argument that CIOs should ensure that they have all the skills needed to do each role, in order to call upon them as and when required.”