Evolution of the CIO

By Warren R. Bituin

First Published in Business World (3/19/2013)

Over the last few years, companies have discovered the challenges of operating in a highly sophisticated technology environment where data and business systems meld and morph with dizzying speed.

These challenges inevitably resulted in a very significant role for the Chief Information Officer (CIO) — now the go-to person for anything and everything related to information technology (IT): questions on information security, budgeting for hardware and software licenses, managing complex computerized systems and industry trends such as cloud computing and commercialization of IT. The responsibilities were defined and essential; many CIOs were happy with where they were. Nevertheless, for some CIOs, the question arises: What comes next?

Transitioning into the executive management team can require significant changes for CIOs, not just in their scope of work, but more critically, in skills development, personal interactions, and how they manage the perception of company leadership. These were some of the findings in the recently released Ernst & Young report called The DNA of the CIO: Opening the door to the C-Suite. The report, which surveyed over 300 CIOs around the world, also detailed some of the challenges and the transformative steps that can help upward-aspiring CIOs to truly secure a place at the top table.

Where CIOs are today
Most CIOs interviewed profess to be happy where they are – about two-thirds of respondents are content to see their role as a final career destination. They see themselves as fulfilling a vital role in a company’s operations and they truly believe that they have an opportunity to make a difference. They want to move away from the perception that IT is merely a support function, but a dynamic contributor to business innovation. Yet many also see this from an execution standpoint, not an executive one, which means that the scope is often in terms of cost management, enablement, deployment and others, rather than development and overall business model innovation. CIOs are often consulted by the Board on decisions to be made – but are not really part of the decision-making.

Where some CIOs want to be
One in 10 of the CIOs surveyed eye the CEO position. Others want to become a true member of the executive management team, with a greater potential to promote change within the organization. The reality in many corporations is that CIOs have an image problem. Many CIOs believe that they help make fact-based decision-making in relation to corporate strategy – yet few of their C-suite peers see this. Most still see IT as a “helpdesk” function, which means that there is even more reason for ambitious CIOs to break out of their comfort zones in the data center and prove that they can see and add value to the bigger business picture.

What these CIOs need
First and foremost, these CIOs need an effective career development strategy, especially those with a largely technology-oriented background. The DNA of the CIO report indicates that the required skills are mainly on leadership, communication, influencing, change management and organization. The CIO’s IT knowhow is unquestioned; but they need to work on the ability to discuss technology issues in terms of the business value (e.g. cost reduction, increased revenue, customer satisfaction rather than network speeds, uptime and terabytes). They need to strengthen their financial literacy, such as understanding how IT spend can affect the net present value of the business.

In a sense, CIOs need to learn a new language –– business-speak combined with tech-speak. And the best way to do this is through exposure and practice. CIOs need to be able to speak on these matters with conviction so that they can effectively sell ideas and strategies to key stakeholders. They need to prove that they are not just “the guy who can make the Blackberry work” but “the guy who can convince me that the cloud can help increase customer loyalty.” But a word of caution – they must truly know what they are talking about, because getting business dynamics wrong is a sure way to lose attention even more quickly.
Another challenge CIOs face is that they are expected to maintain the status quo. When IT works fine, it’s the expected norm. Any dips in performance result in immediate negative reactions. This is why CIOs need to be able to delegate the day-to-day IT management and operational concerns, so that they can focus on the higher-order issues, such as providing business insights or strategic input. They need to focus more on the “information” rather than the “technology” aspects of their jobs.

Another area that CIOs will need to work on is building relationships across the organization. Any executive role is, by nature, political. This is why, despite how difficult this might be for some, CIOs need to build trust with key internal stakeholders. One of the first bridges to build will be with the CFO, given how IT has long been considered a cost control function. But the primary relationship should be also with the CEO, as no CIO can really effect transformative programs without the CEO’s support.

These relationships also need to go beyond the C-level officers; they need to make friends across the business, notably in areas of communications, front office and sales, among others. Without these, the CIO will have a harder time establishing his role as a provider of innovation and value that clearly benefits revenue. The CIO needs to be seen as providing these benefits.

This is, of course, easier said than done. The Ernst & Young report offers CIOs some practical advice on how to build relationships both within and without the organization.

One is to build a solid track record as being reliable, trustworthy and a solution provider. Another is to gain an understanding of the functions and issues of other executives. It is also important to always help people in a fix, and even go the extra mile. Building relationships also require investing time with people, both formally and informally. And all of these should be done proactively and positively.

As mentioned earlier, most CIOs are content with the immense contributions they make to the well-being and operational efficiency of the company, and that’s perfectly fine. But for those CIOs who have higher aspirations, then an evolutionary leap is likely to be in order.

Warren R. Bituin is a Partner and the Chief Information Officer of SGV & Co.

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of SGV & Co.