It’s been more than 25 years since I first started working in IT, transforming a university spin-off into a profitable commercial enterprise. At the time, the role of the CIO was largely operational, dealing with lots of different machines and trying to find ways to keep them running smoothly, meeting the needs of our user bases while at the same time keeping an eye on the latest industry developments. Making computers communicate with one another was not for the faint-hearted and involved large amounts of technical know-how and time, with regular performance issues leaving little time for reflection. Today’s CIO, according to a recent survey released by Harvey Nash and KPMG, could not be more different. According to the research, nearly two-thirds of CIOs now report directly to the CEO and can boast of an evolving and expanding remit. Almost half say they have experienced significant budget increases, and spend an average of 15% of their time on functions outside traditional IT. Many are in the business of strategic change.
So, is this change real and if so, how has it come about? After a discussion with our own CIO, Jay Leader, who has held the CIO role in a number of different organisations, it seems that the answer lies partly in the changes brought about by technology itself.
The largest single transformation was the arrival of the internet. While the effects on consumers have been discussed endlessly, the significance for IT departments is often overlooked. The internet changed everything. Before its arrival, installations, upgrades and backups almost all required disks and delays. Back in 1990, the idea of doing a system-wide update was insane; today we don’t even think twice about it.
The other major change, which took place in the early 1990s, was the advent of laptops; for the first time users were accessing information from outside the confines of the firewall. That opened up a lot of security issues that many IT departments weren’t prepared to address. CIOs had to learn the best ways to support employees and contractors while also managing potential security breaches. Next came portable mobile devices, which added to the complexity because BYOD (bring your own device) was a real thing. How are CIOs supposed to support people who aren’t even using the company’s standard machines?
Today, two major revolutions are changing how chief information officers work, and they both relate to the cloud. Firstly, the cloud has changed just about everything in the world of archiving, storage and document retention. Organisations that maintained policies about saving emails and files now have to contend with employees and contractors who may be leaving sensitive information on Dropbox and in Gmail accounts. The other major change the cloud is introducing is the centralisation of systems and processes. For example, things like software updates are no longer a manual task; just think back to the days when you had to employ an IT team to go around to each desktop computer and install a new version of a piece of software using a floppy disk. With the cloud, now you can simply wait for the system to update itself via an automated install. This is just one example of how CIOs don’t have to worry about day-to-day systems management any more, and instead can focus on strategic growth and planning for the future.
The rise of the geek
For a long time, in spite of their title, CIOs were still treated as “those guys” who would come by to fix computers and find lost emails. It was a very reactive role, being called in primarily to handle problems or implementations of new systems. According to Jay, “a lot of times it wasn’t a very strategic job because every day was about finding new ways to stick your fingers into the seawall to keep the ocean out. It may have been a C-level title, but being a CIO was often on par with the facilities manager. Our job was to keep things working, and we really only got noticed when things went sideways.”
While many of the problems that caused CIOs to lose sleep are no longer issues, CIOs should not be resting on their laurels. It’s true that teams spend far less time keeping systems up and running than they did in the past, as a direct result of so many of the tools we use being based in the cloud. They no longer have to spend most of their time keeping enterprise systems functional, which has allowed many CIOs to build teams around strategic operations rather than constantly bailing out the canoe. Nonetheless, they still need to take enough of an interest operationally to keep the engine running smoothly. Recent horror stories show how easy it is for simple errors to cause a huge amount of damage; the NHS failing to upgrade Windows XP, or BA failing to explain how a single power surge could have taken out two data centres in different locations, leading to the total shutdown of its global operations, are two clear examples.
So, while a fundamental technology shift has made it possible for CIOs to spend time preparing for the future and assessing exciting new technologies, they still need to keep one eye on the organisation’s immediate needs. Both aspects of the role are essential, and forward-thinking CIOs are working with leadership teams to be part of the planning process, which automatically gives them a seat at the boardroom table. As long as CIOs are seen to be providing value and expertise, they will be significant players in corporate strategy because no matter what kind of business you’re in, it’s a pretty good bet that technology is driving most of your operations.
For CIOs to embrace the changing universe that all of us in IT now inhabit, it’s essential to turn their expertise both to answering business questions and maintaining an infrastructure that can withstand the technical challenges – both accidental and deliberate - that every organisation is now likely to face. It’s a completely different world out there, and the CIO has a big role to play in it.