CIOs stand firm amid increasing relevance, risk

After a five-year dormant period, IT is now becoming more relevant than ever and CIOs are facing more risk, according to attendees at a CIO Executive Council seminar in Sydney this week.

The council's executive director Con Colovos said one of the biggest issues CIOs face is getting the right personnel due to a decline in young people choosing IT as a career. There is also a challenge in the relationship between the CEO and CIO, who often act as "partners in an uncomfortable marriage".

When Colovos asked the panel of speakers whether the CIO is considered strategically important to the business, there was an unequivocal 'yes'.

"Don't confuse the person with the role," Colgate Palmolive CIO Barry Simpson said. "Somewhere the organization will align technology with business priorities and will determine how much it will spend on IT."

Simpson questioned whether this alignment is the responsibility of CIOs today, saying that in a lot of companies the task is split among a few people so "it will depend on the skills of the person".

News Limited CIO John Pittard said he can't think of an organization where IT is not crucial; it has to be strategic or the business "doesn't move forward".

"It depends in the industry and maturity of the company," Pittard said, adding when he recruits he doesn't target people with pure IT backgrounds, because these skills are not what is needed for a CIO role.

The role of the CIO is also to understand the business, according to JP Morgan Chase CIO Martin Laing, who puts the "right individuals in place" to work with the business units.

"The role of the CIO is not to get across IT, but the business, to make sure we are strategically aligned," Laing said.

This sentiment was shared by the CEO-side of the panel, with Legal Aid NSW deputy CEO Russell Cox saying the CIO role is essential, because IT is the biggest enabler of change within the organization.

"As IT becomes more complex, the CIO is a principal in that activity," Cox said.

Law firm Blake Dawson Waldron partner Sophie Dawson agreed by saying the CIO is crucial to her business as effective IT is needed to provide advice to clients.

"My area of expertise is IT&T disputes [so] we see projects where things have gone wrong," Dawson said.

"Research by the Standish Group in 2005 [indicated] that internationally most projects are seen as failures by the organizations which commission them, which shows the importance of having the right people on both sides. The fact that projects continue notwithstanding historical problems of this scale demonstrates the strategic importance of IT."

A climate of increasing IT risk is also elevating the importance of the CIO.

When asked if, from an IT perspective, risk is being taken out of the business, News Limited's John Pittard said: "No it hasn't, it just doesn't work like that."

"We take a commercial approach to risk," he said. "We are living with risks, like our 30-year-old Fujitsu mainframe, but are not doing anything about that in the short term, [though] we have spent a lot with e-mail and eliminated risk around that."

Colgate Palmolive's Simpson said risk is increasing because the company had a history of working at a subsidiary level, but is now looking to become more global.

"Getting systems to scale and work across geographies is a challenge," he said.

The CIO Executive Council is a division of IDG, the publisher of Computerworld.

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