Information Technology Management with a Purpose

Oct 10 2015   9:59AM GMT

Predicament of the CIO

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

CIO leadership
CIO skills

The information Technology sector has undergone a sea change over the last few decades. I remember the days in the 1970s when we used to struggle with punch cards and rickety slow systems which would take their own time to process data. From then on changes crept in, slowly at first, faster in the years following (the 1980s) and then at a feverish pace towards the end of twentieth century and thereafter. It had been quite a struggle for many who had to survive and had to keep pace with the changes taking place around them. It was not only about learning new technologies but about application of technology, connect with business and meeting the changing expectations of management.

Evolution of the CIO

The role of the information technologist got enhanced over time. The young EDP officer was elevated to the position of EDP manager as more of his ilk joined his team. As technology evolved further to generate online information, the term ‘information technology’ came in to describe this function and as a result the EDP manager was conferred titles of ‘Information Technology Manager’, General Manager – IT etc., which came to him as his right of inheritance. When competition in the market intensified, information became a key resource and companies making informed decisions based on these inputs became more adept in responding to the customer demands and in fighting competition in the markets. Sensing the importance of information and the invaluable role that computers played, companies were convinced that the main driver of this change would have to be an information specialist who was also tech savvy. Such a person was then to be the ‘Chief Information Officer’ or the CIO. As was natural, the IT manager laid claim for this position terming this as his birth right. The management executives and other business heads to whom technology was alien, easily conceded to this demand. The IT Manager thus came to be known as the CIO.

The real challenge for the CIO

This, in my opinion was the turning point and the real challenge for the information technology manager turned CIO. Slowly as the need for relevant and meaningful information arose and as technology further integrated with the business, the real need for a good CIO came to fore. By now IT had got enmeshed with all activities of business and most of the business processes were automated. As competition intensified, more was expected out of investments in IT and demands on the CIO increased. The mere automation of the processes did not please the management enough and they started looking for visible benefits to business. The need for a strategic plan for IT was strongly felt by companies – a plan which could consider the strategies, objectives, priorities and goals of the business and lay down an action plan for addressing them in a phased manner. Business focus was paramount. Some CIOs measured up to the challenge while some others are still learning the ropes.

The changing scenario

In the meanwhile, impact of IT was felt in various aspects of business. Companies kept looking for newer ways to win in the market and considered using Information, knowledge, Innovation, data security etc. in a way which could enable and equip them in leading the race. This resulted in the emergence of new positions like Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), Chief Innovation Officer (CInnO), Chief Digital Officer (CDO), Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) etc. besides the position of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) which already existed. In the midst of such eminent positions, the role of the CIO had to come under review; it was now not as clear as earlier and the role looked a little hazy. Organizations now look a bit uneasy with the CIOs and the CIOs feel managements are unclear and non supportive. This situation has perhaps prompted some CIOs to turn entrepreneurs and operate outside corporates to be on their own, though I am unsure of this being the right reaction to the situation.

The paradox

Unlike any time earlier, the CIO has now to adapt to changes taking place at a much feverish pace than before. We often say technology changes the way we do business and we really see that happening in various sectors of the industry. Confusion exists about how much should the CIO know technology and how much should he know of business. Managements expect CIOs to think beyond the ordinary and take lead in organization projects that use technology, in coordination with others in the company. The CIO is groping for answers and trying to learn more tricks in order to survive. His role is in a state of flux and digitization has now opened up a new paradigm. Many companies, on the other hand, do not know what they need out of the CIO and therefore share a part of the blame. However the profession of CIO is at crossroads waiting to evolve into a new avatar.

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