Putting the I Back into CIO

There is an ongoing debate in many companies about whether the revolution of BYO, mobile apps, and cloud services – all of which accelerate shadow IT – is lessening or increasing the scope of the CIO role. Some in the business and tech media have gone so far as to declare that the title might soon vanish from the business lexicon.

The arguments, both pro and con, assume that the CIO role must fundamentally change. This is true. There is disruption in end-user requirements, technology platforms, selection process, IT governance, and so on. 

These changes impact every facet of IT, including the CIO, but they rarely start with – or even acknowledge – two important questions. First, what is the mission of the CIO? Second, is that mission fundamentally aligned or misaligned with the emerging model of enterprise computing?

It’s always been about the flow of information

It is easy to forget that the role of the CIO has been around less than 30 years. This function emerged in the late 80s and 90s as enterprise computing evolved from a PC on a desk to an era of broad network connectivity, enterprise apps, interconnected business information systems, and business intelligence. These technologies created competitive advantages, particularly during the widespread adoption of the Internet, and businesses needed an executive who could establish and harness those advantages.

Adopting these emerging technologies and managing information across an organization effectively required a senior-level executive to own the various information systems and guide effective investment in new technologies and approaches to business data.

The reason that executive became known as the “CIO”, was because his or her core responsibility revolved around handling information. The CIO was charged with making sense of information, enabling its flow throughout an organization with as little friction as possible, securing it, and guiding the entire company forward into this new era.

Losing the forest for the trees

Over the last three decades, however, the CIO role has become less and less about business enablement through information and more and more about risk mitigation, procurement, data center operations, cost management, and staffing.

On the one hand, that’s entirely sensible. The technology has gotten incredibly more complex. The hardware and software need to make a company function, not to mention the required staff, have grown by several orders of magnitude. The number of enterprise technology projects grew by leaps and bounds, while new processes were embraced to support their implementation.

On the other hand, the CIO’s duties expanded so much that the core mission was easily obscured. Managing things became so critical and broad that the initial mission – focusing on the flow of information and how it could enable business success – became obscured. After all, you have to keep the lights on in order to keep the information flowing in the first place.

Coming full circle

CIOs have an existential challenge in front of them. Those whose daily calendar has become crammed with operational tasks will lose influence. Those whose daily calendar is still truly focused on the “I” (information) and are investing personal time to understand and act on the new models of mobile and cloud computing, will gain influence.

With mobile exploding, the internet of things emerging, and the data center fracturing across cloud services, we are entering a world with more information at our fingertips than we ever imagined. The CIO who has stayed true to his or her original mission of establishing business advantage through information is in the best position to respond and deliver exceptional value to the organization.

Achieving the core CIO mission in 2015 will require a very different set of initiatives than 1990:

  • Understand the fundamentals of the end user’s daily information workflow.
  • Deploy mobile services that eliminate the latency in that workflow.
  • Shift services to the cloud to reduce complexity.
  • Enable and empower business units to take on a portion of technology management and cost.
  • Work with the employee base to buy rather than build the services and apps they want to use rather than those IT wants to give them.
  • Establish platforms that support continuous change in the application portfolio of the organization.
  • Develop trust across the organization to support constant collaboration.
  • Make every employee his or her own CIO by embracing self-procurement, self-support, and the positive aspects of Shadow IT.

I’ve previously said that your mindset determines whether today is the best or worst time to be a CIO. Part of the successful mindset will be returning to the basics of the role. Embrace that notion and let the forces rocking enterprise computing bring you back to what the job has always really been about: Information.

Ryan Faas