How big is the CIO role?

A decade ago, the CIO role was not the most coveted role on the board, with most having to negotiate their way into the organisation's strategic planning process.

But things have changed.

According to Michael Earl, director of the London Business School's Centre for the Network Economy, these days it's rare for CIOs to have to beg for a place at the table.

Earl's research shows that more than half the CIOs are being invited to take a seat. "Expectations have changed. In most sophisticated organisations, it's simply assumed the CIO will be involved in the strategic planning," he says.

On one hand the CIO role will focus on strategy and on the other, execution.

Suresh Padmanabhan, CIO of the Australian Institute of Management (AIM), Australia's largest professional body for managers, argues a CIO's charter is all about strategy.

"The CIO is a key person for the entire organisation. The role is a driving force to maintain its status as a high-performance organisation," he says.

"Not only do I have to understand and have the ability to articulate IT, but have a clear vision for IT in the business -- one of business integration with technology."

Compared to four years ago, the focus of his role as CIO of the AIM's NSW and ACT branches has moved from service delivery and technology, to strategy and operational delivery for external customers, not only those internally, he says.

Some analysts contend the business-IT alignment is a no-brainer, while others believe understanding the business will be the skill that either makes or breaks a CIO's career.

Padmanabhan takes the latter stance. He says an ability to understand the business is the biggest expectation of today's CIO.

"If the CIO does not understand where the business is heading, how can he contribute to its getting there?" he asks.

Also key to achieving a holistic IT vision is the CIO's networking clout. "The role is one that lends itself to constant networking with senior executive peers, the CEO and board, and business partners and vendors," he says.

"You need to be able to interact with those at the highest level of the organisation. That is, be able to fit right into senior management -- the company's leaders who develop and market the products and deal strategically with customers.

"And it is through networking with a cross-section of people and beyond your own company that the CIO develops an awareness of emerging technologies and best practices," he says.

The skill to influence those at the top is essential because it's the CIO who must ensure the CEO and senior management understand the risks involved in choosing and implementing relevant technology products and services, Padmanabhan says.

But, he concedes producing a workable IT-business model for the 250-employee AIM is not without its political pressures.

First, there's the issue of people management and dealing with a paradigm shift, he says. "The best we can get out of anyone is two to three years. So CIOs need to have a strategy to get maximum value out of an employee during their [tenure]" with minimum disruption when they leave.

Padmanabhan also faces the ongoing challenge of managing cultural change. "The CIO and IT [group] can't just sit back and work in [their] own technology empire. The problems start when IT sits back and waits for the business to communicate with it," he said.

So important is the CIO's responsibility to achieve a transfer of information both ways that in the next 10 years businesses will win or lose depending on how well this happens, he believes.

Thirdly, is the pressure of cost-containment and managing business heads' expectations. For Padmanabhan, such a test lurks in the area of project management -- meeting the need to execute IT-business projects on time and on budget. "One of my top priorities as CIO is to deliver projects fast, within budget and aligned with current business practices, but it is a perennial challenge to deliver what the business wants whilst still containing costs.

"For CIOs the cost of delayed projects is [you] run the risk of either the business model or technology becoming redundant in that time," he warns. Simone Kaplan and Edward Prewitt contributed to this article.

What's expected of the CIO? What is the future role of the CIO? E-mail Helen_Han@idg.com.au.

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