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Chief Information Officer as leader: a new paradigm

“Inside a company, CEO-CIO alignment may be the most important factor in determining whether an enterprise realises the productivity possibilities of Information Technology,” Ron Ricci, co-author of Momentum: How Companies Become Unstoppable Market Forces.
In the wake of this recession, many Chief Information Officers (CIOs) have had to trim their budgets. In the United States, to cut costs further, some state and local governments have resorted to consolidating Information Technology (IT) with another department, such as finance. The good news is that in some of these cases, CIOs are being promoted to lead the newly merged departments.

In fact, putting the CIO in charge of operations outside Information Technology (IT) is no longer a novel concept. A 2008 Gartner Executive Programmes survey of 1,500 CIOs found that more than half held responsibilities outside of traditional IT. In a recent Project Leadership training session I conducted in Houston, Texas, some CIOs in attendance stated that they are now given additional responsibilities in areas like human resources without officially adding them to their title. One reason to consolidate is to save money by reducing the number of managers, according to participants. Another reason is that organisations are looking for efficiencies and innovation. Executives want more business intelligence about how to run operations more efficiently, and the CIO is well positioned to provide that.

As more CIOs have partnered with departments on innovative process and automation projects, it is not surprising that some have earned reputations as problem-solvers. There is a trend of CIOs becoming more business-minded, and they should be prepared to take on new leadership roles outside the data center. For CIOs who have been engaged with departments at the business level for years and have embraced things like performance measurement, strategic planning and project management, those are universal skills that would translate to any department.

CIOs who previously directed IT work are now responsible for areas such as budgeting, human resources and procurement. With budget cuts, this consolidation can be part of a larger effort to reduce the number of strategic business units. CIOs should enthusiastically take on what may well be opportunities to use technology to automate manual, back-office tasks.

If an IT department or a CIO has a solid reputation for fundamentally changing processes, corporate board members should consider leveraging that strength to improve other manually-based processes.
One of the challenges a CIO faces is developing a single department culture as IT workers join forces with a functional unit team. IT departments typically have a customer relationship model with clients and a metrics system to meet service levels. The trick is to bring some of that culture to an administrative organisation that is more functionally-based.

Assuming more responsibility may be daunting at first for some. CIOs have to learn functional area specifics as they take on a greater role. As they take on greater responsibilities, they also have to trust the judgments of subject matter experts. Project management and analysis skills gained from working in IT come into play when one is responsible for more people and more areas. IT leaders who have shown an ability to deliver will be given more responsibility going forward because those skills are just an aspect of what they already do.

A CIO is also well positioned to bring key emerging concerns like information management, cyber security and technology risk to the forefront. Adel Melek, Global Leader for Deloitte, spoke to Business News Network in March during his visit to Canada. In the interview, Melek stated that the whole issue of cyber security has risen to such a level of criticality that all organisations have come to realise how important it is to manage and control. The types of threats and the agents of threats continue to evolve. There is an ongoing ‘invisible war’ between hackers and companies. Hackers are now starting to target intellectual property. They are looking for information on mergers and acquisitions deals to sell to third parties or for personal gain. This raises a lot of concern about cloud computing. In a recent speech that Melek referenced, President Barack Obama talked about the new lexicon of new terminologies that we are hearing such as botnets, hackers, cyber moles, etc. President Obama alluded that in some extreme cases, Melek stated that some organised crime backed hackers have infiltrated several government agencies and even some countries’ army and defense networks. Melek gave examples of India accusing China of infiltrating its military network, as well as leading Oil and Gas companies in Texas that have come to know some governments have infiltrated their networks.

This raises the importance of the role of a CIO even more. While it can seem like a dismal road ahead, a CIO with information security acumen will meticulously lead the enterprise through the multi-layered and complex security structure that exists in today’s leading organisations.

As the criticality of topics like business continuity, risk control, and secure communication with other organisations gain attention, a holistic leadership approach is needed. The achievement of strategic alignment requires a process of continuous adaptation and change in light of strategic intent and current business strategies. The promotion of IT leaders demonstrates recognition that CIOs have a certain skill set for delivering on such objectives.

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