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The Role of the CIO in 2016

Published on 22 January 16

Every year, for at least the past 15 years, a question has occasionally been raised about whether the CIO’s role was about to become obsolete. And every year since then we’ve seen the role remain intact. My own view is that the role is in no way obsolete even now, but the content of the role and its focuses must keep changing with the kinds of change that the external environment and technology keep throwing up.
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By now we’ve seen and experienced a sea change in the way IT function relates to the business, and in the way IT is delivered. In the beginning, the IT function was a hallowed, centralised den of hardware and software that was difficult to work with without specialised qualifications and training. IT zealously owned and guarded all the data of the enterprise, allowing access only at its discretion. Businesses submitted to working with what it could deliver, and had no other recourse if IT projects were late or if they failed. Most times the IT function was trying to catch up with supporting the business, it didn't often enable a different path it could follow.

Today, the situation is so totally different. The business, right down to the individual employee level is empowered by not only being able quite often to bring their own devices to work (BYOD), but by having internet access that opens up a world of self-service application and processing options to them. IT services required for application development and support can easily be outsourced, and a lot of enterprise hardware is moving to the cloud.

In addition, with the rise of digitization, social media and the availability of Big Data, the CMO’s office has become increasingly tech savvy, and new roles like those of the CAO (Chief Analytics Officer) and CDO (Chief Data Officer) have emerged.

Given that so many of the IT functions seem to have moved out of the IT department altogether, there are voices in some quarters that say that the CIOs role is no longer needed as the in-house remnants of IT support are purely operational functions that could belong to either the COO or the CMO. I disagree with this view.

While it is true that a lot of the operational functions retained in-house may have thinned down, the more strategic side to the CIO’s role still remains, and the operational functions become more intense even as the number of people performing them may be less. A CIO is still needed to own the big picture of IT in the enterprise, and to manage the coherence, relevance and interdependencies of all the pieces that comprise it. Because these pieces may now lied in the hands of various other functions and vendors, what’s changed perhaps are the capabilities that the CIO must now possess and demonstrate in this new world in order to be able to effectively retain control of the overall strategy.

The CIO of 2016 must know more than ever about how technology cannot just support, but become a competitive enabler for the business. In order to be able to do this, she must be able to understand technology at least enough to form an accurate understanding of the landscape as a whole, and how the latest and upcoming technologies can creatively be used for business advantage. The CIO must also understand IT services and all sorts of services and infrastructure available on the cloud, and how to best take advantage of each, as evaluating them and negotiating the best deals in these areas requires much more than just commercial skills.

As for the CAO and CDO, they should each have a totally different focus, with the only common element with the CIO role is that they jobs also deal with data and information. The CAO remains a consumer of data, with the job of wrangling it to get the best business results, but it remains within the CIO’s domain to manage all the ingestion, storage, access, security and retention of data that may be required, not just by the CAO, but every other enterprise processing function as well. The CDO’s job is more about data governance and standards, and depending upon the size and complexity of the organization, this too may be a role that requires a full time focus, while leaving the CIO to focus on other things.

Apart from this, there’s still the job of managing the corporate enterprise application and architecture portfolio. It cannot be completely decentralized into the hands of individual departments, and it may be far too technically complex in depth and scope for the COO or CMO to make the best decisions about them.

The reality that remains, though, is that computing is far more pervasive and in more empowered business hands across the enterprise, so the CIO of 2016 will also have to be more of an enabler and maybe a coach who facilitates people with their IT, and is able to gain their co-operation to help him manage it all, rather than try to be too authoritative about who owns what technology and what they can do with it.

On the whole, the CIO of 2016 will continue to be a technical visionary, but with much stronger negotiating and cross-functional skills, a clear business-first perspective, and absolutely top notch people and networking skills.

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