No middle ground - why CIOs thrive or die

Customer business teams are outsourcing their technology to cloud providers while avoiding or ignoring their internal technology teams. Great Chief Information Officers (CIOs) who embrace wider business responsibilities will thrive. The other CIOs won't survive.

cio

Photo: kohlmann.sascha (Some rights reserved)

1. A CIO can no longer be a pure technologist

Last year, CIO Magazine published an article titled "How to Be the CIO of Tomorrow":

What does the future CIO look like? He or she probably won’t have a technology background. However, this new kind of CIO will not only have to lead a technical staff but will also be a leader of leaders in the boardroom.

The problem with the argument that CIOs don't need a technology background is that while CIOs can no longer be mere technologists, they still need a deep understanding of technology to be effective. Particularly as technology is now so integral to all businesses, and because there is no longer any real distinction between customer business team responsibilities and customer technology team responsibilities. For example, this is right:

Viewing the business through the eyes of the customer is not something that we tend to do as CIOs. We tend to spend a lot of time talking to supporting functions and internal operations. But are we prepared to take an outside-in view of the business? The typical CIO plays within a certain set of boundaries, or a box. Are we willing to step outside of that and drive cross-functional initiatives? If we stick within an IT boundary, we're going to miss the digital transformation agenda.

2. But many CIOs have lost control of their technology and information systems

The argument in the article is that the role of the CIO has not been diminished, but the following quote is telling:

I see the CIO as taking the guardian or custodian role, so we don't have shadow IT organizations popping up everywhere. The days of IT strategy getting decided just by the CIO, and the CIO having to convince the CFO or CEO, are gone. The CIO has to be able to take input from all sources and manage and direct the conversation at board level to ensure that we're getting a 360-degree view of what we should be doing.

In other words, many CIOs have lost control over how technology (and information systems) are used in their organisations. Business owners are moving technology and business functions to the cloud while avoiding, or outright ignoring, their own technology teams.

3. Because increasingly our technology systems are black boxes that we don't understand

Security professionals have a ... let's call it eccentric ... sense of humour. For example, @SwiftOnSecurity(InfoSec Taylor Swift) is a security professional who insists that she is in fact the singer Taylor Swift, and who tweets about information security. Yes, yes, I know, but stay with me. InfoSec Taylor Swift recently posted the following:

black box

Photo: @SwiftOnSecurity (February 6, 2015)

And that is often what is happening. Company technology systems will become brittle and insecure if no-one in the company has a deep understanding of technology because company employees will inevitably just believe supplier sales spin. The CIO Magazine article argued that this reliance on suppliers is a good thing:

Technical acumen, which has always been seen as a core field for CIOs, I believe will be increasingly acquired from different sources, such as partners, vendors, customers. Some aspect of IT strategy will be crowd-sourced from the business

But it is actually a major problem.

4. And a CIO who doesn't understand technology is as dangerous as a CFO who doesn't understand finance

In other words, if a supplier came to you and offered to run all of your finance functions, would you fire your Chief Financial Officer? Would you accept the risk that you no longer have anyone in your organisation who understands your business finances?

I think not.

And given that technology is now a critical part of all businesses, if your CIO does not understanding technology in general, and your technology in particular, then that is as risky as your CFO not understanding finance.

5. Great CIOs have a deep understanding of their technology stack, their industry, and their business

CIOs now need to know more to thrive or simply survive. And a great CIO needs to have a strong technology background. Because how can you advise on technology if you don't understand it?

A great CIO also needs to have a deep understanding of the business and the industry in which the CIO works. A great CIO builds internal and external relationships, understands the business' internal and external systems at a granular level, and works with internal and external stakeholders to constantly improve business processes. And a great CIO quite simply eats the cloud for breakfast.

Mmmmn tasty.


This post originally appeared at iainmclaren.com. These opinions are mine. They are not necessarily those of my employer.