Anatomy of an IT leader: From master to orchestrator

One of the recurring debates in the IT industry is around how the role of the chief information officer (CIO) is evolving and how the attributes required by an individual to fill it successfully are changing. Many advise aspiring CIOs to move from a technology-centric to a business-centric focus and approach, which is all very logical given the current economic downturn and the increased pressure on IT to deliver business value. But is this enough?

When considering this question, it is important to prefix the discussion with an acknowledgement that not all CIOs are the same in terms of skill sets and experience. Some have a financial background, for example, while others come from the business side or rise up through the IT ranks. Furthermore, not all are operating in the same kind of environment. The opportunities and challenges facing a CIO will vary considerably based on the organisation’s size, culture, political landscape, market objectives, attitude to change, financial stability, and so on. With this in mind, we need to be careful not to make sweeping assumptions about CIO job requirements.

That said, there are some factors to do with the changing nature of both IT and the way in which IT services can be delivered that are beginning to affect most CIOs.

Let’s start with the general requirement for the CIO to run an operation that is as tuned in to business priorities and objectives as possible. The critical nature of IT in most organisations today underlines the imperative here. But does that mean the CIO needs to be an expert in their company’s core business? Well not necessarily –­ that’s very much a “nice to have” rather than a mandatory requirement. Neither, by the way, does the CIO need an in-depth knowledge of all technology areas relevant to meeting the organisation’s needs.

Whether it is the business or technical dimension, the increasing complexity of both sides of the equation means that what the CIO needs most of all is the necessary insight to put the right team in place and the skills to organise, direct and motivate them. The best-run IT departments operate on the principles of trust, delegation and good governance, so leadership and management ability will trump in-depth business and technical knowledge on every occasion.

Beyond internal operations, in well-run IT departments with good visibility, policy and processes in place ­ – all strong indicators of effective management –­ the principles of trust and delegation are naturally extended to third parties. Freeform Dynamics’ research, for example, has thrown up some interesting correlations in this area. As documented in our report IT on the Front Foot, when the IT department is well managed, greater advantage tends to be taken of hosting, managed services and other outsourcing options ­ – including third-party development and even software as a service (SaaS). Furthermore, such a rounded approach to sourcing IT capability, whether in terms of capacity, functionality or skills, goes hand in hand with a heightened perception of value contributed by IT to the business.

With the indisputable realities of offshoring economics, the need to optimise resourcing plans against the backdrop of a global skills pool, and the relentless drive of vendors and service providers towards various forms of cloud computing, it is clear that on the sourcing side of the equation, the emphasis is moving away from the traditional “command and control” style of management with a pure internal focus. The successful CIO is therefore not master of all they survey, as was perhaps the case 20 years ago when they walked into their datacentre. Instead they are more orchestrators of activity that may cross many organisational and jurisdictional boundaries.

When it comes to the demand side, the increasing technical literacy of users and the advent of “consumerisation” of technology mean the CIO can no longer expect to be the single port of call and point of control for all IT capability used within the business. Those that have tried to fight or block phenomena such as the infiltration of Apple Macs into management teams, the hooking up of personal mobiles to the email system, or the use of public services for conferencing, instant messaging and social media, have either seen a backlash from users, or the driving of such activity underground.

As we look forward, the requirement will increasingly be for CIOs and their teams to monitor all such trends and support the activity that makes sense, while protecting both users and the business from a productivity, quality of service, cost and risk perspective. In some cases, this will involve offering users properly supported alternatives, in others it may be about providing the facilities, frameworks and policies to ensure that externally sourced technology and services may be used safely and effectively. Either way, few CIOs will be able to ignore the increasing level of influence and autonomy that users are already enjoying in many cases.

These developments, along with the advent of virtualisation, dynamic infrastructure, power accountability, and other factors that disrupt the traditional ways in which IT services have been delivered and accounted for, mean that many CIOs, regardless of their background and environment, will be having even more complex and challenging conversations with business stakeholders in the years to come. With this in mind, there are perhaps three other CIO attributes that will really come to the fore in 2010 and beyond –­ those of negotiator, ambassador and politician.

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