The CIO is dead. Long live the CIO!

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks December 7, 2014

The Chief Digital Officer is being pushed hard as the answer for businesses looking to digitalise their operations.
CIOs claim they already do that job and include it in a much wider view of managing the use of information.

It had all the makings of a good public argument, but in the end last week's Economist-sponsored CIO Forum ended up a surprisingly one-sided affair.

Nearly all the speakers at the London event contributed to putting to the sword the key subject for discussion: is a serious need for a new job of Chief Digital Officer to head up the onward charge of web, cloud and digitalisation that is surging over businesses of every type and size?

Instead, some much older issues: in particular the need to educate users in how to exploit digital developments, how to develop talent capable of exploiting it, and communicating much more effectively with both end users and board level management, emerged as key components of a future CIO's job spec.

The scene was set by a short keynote from JP Ragaswami, long known to many as the Chief Scientist of Salesforce, but soon to head off to pastures new at Deutche Bank. He sees the role of CIO changing as the IT industry leaves behind a business model driven by scarcity where every bit of technology used was "expensive“ and moves to a world where everything can be empowered.

No longer is the cost of the technology a restriction on doing things. As he put it, now people can do it for themselves, leading to CIOs increasingly using the phrase: `bring me the fire-hose'. At the same time, the businesses that IT serves are shifting from being product centred to being customer-centred:

The smartest people no longer work for you, so you now need alliances and partnerships, products and services are bought from a much wider network of suppliers, so you need a much bigger network. And that changes the trust model. We used to trust the food our mothers and grandmothers gave us, but now we eat street food without knowing its provenance. So now comms and data traffic has to be allowed to cross the firewall. If it doesn't it is like your customers talking and you are not listening. That is now a good way to lose customers.

CDO need?

It is against this background that the notion of the need for a Chief Digital Officer, someone specifically focused on identifying, implementing and promoting the opportunities for digitalizing a business, has come into being. As the sole real defender of this cause to speak at the conference, Sean Cornwell, the recently appointed CDO of Travelex, said :

The worst thing digital can be in an organisation is a silo. I see the CDO role as adding a real advantage to the business because the role of the CIO represents old, slow, expensive, legacy technologies, whereas the CDO role represents business advantage and growth in the future.

That being said, he did then also acknowledge that he sees the role of the CDO as being only transitory. That, in a few words, summed up the consensus of the Forum, both amongst the speakers and the CIO-centric audience the event had gathered together.

It took the form of a series of panel sessions on various aspects of the future for whatever a CIO-like function might look like, and it did spawn debate, rather than pontification from speakers.

This subject of the next generation CIO  was the subject for the first panel, which featured Alan Mumby, a partner in head hunters, Odgers Berndtson, Andrew Horne, Managing Director of membership organisation,CEB, and Federico Florez Gutierrez, the CIIO of Ferrovial, who recently dismissed the CDO concept at the recent Huawei-sponsored CIO Forum in Amsterdam.

In summary, their collective views were that the CIO will need to spend much more time developing talent, especially as the business advantage of using IT grows while the technology lifecycle shortens drastically.

There will be a need for CIOs to sharpen up their stakeholder management skills to match the growth in stakeholders as business hierarchies flatten out and business partners and (in an increasingly customer-centric world) customers become at least as important as internal stakeholders.

So people skills, such as listening, communication and leadership qualities will be far more important than they have been for many CIOs so far.

Change management, managing the new, will also come strongly to the fore, with Gutierrrez restating his position that managing innovation in and around the use of new digital systems and technologies will be a vital role for the CIO. This is why he is re-branding of himself as a Chief Information and Innovation Officer (CIIO).

That means not only being open to suggestions for innovation from within the company, but proactively going out and seeking innovations and ideas. CIOs must now expect to work with external third parties to help with the greater complexities of some applications, such as big data analytics. Outsourcing will no longer be an either/or choice, so there will be a need to facilitate the use of external expertise.

So CIOs will be spending much of their time working with organisations and specialists outside of the company, as well as company staff that use existing applications rather than work for IT.

This does raise some problems for many companies, not least because with changes coming upon them rapidly from every quarter. Many are not even sure what they want or need to achieve, or who they are looking for to help them achieve it. The best that some can come with is: `I need someone who knows about digital'.

These days therefore, the best CIOs may well be those that not only understand the tech issues, but also have a real nose for the business issues and trends that are important to their company. As Mumby observed:

It is no longer about the wires, it is about what the wires are used for.

But by the same token, there will still be a vast amount of existing legacy infrastructure and applications portfolios that needs to be managed and kept in good order. Much of the business will still depend on them, and those `lights' must still be kept on.

The second panel looked at the place of the CIO in the hierarchy of business management, and the thorny issue of whether they should be on the board or not. Again broad consensus ruled the day amongst the panelists, Tania Howarth, Chief Operating Officer of Iglo Foods Group, Chris Taylor, Chief Operating Officer of News UK, and Ashish Gupta, CIO of BT Global Services.

Collected together, their advice was to not agonise about the role or position, just aim to be a fantastic leader, and especially a commercial leader first. So their advice is that CIOs should invest in themselves in that role.

In the end they have access to the board whether they are on it or not. But they must also work to demystify technology, for these days it is no longer an unusual mystery. Someone has to take the role of campaigning for information management and use, and the CIO is the obvious candidate. And yes, much of that campaigning has to be at board level.

But the education role also exists amongst the rest of the staff. Educating them in what technology can do for them -  and indeed, may well do to them if they don't learn to exploit it themselves - is a vital task.

My take

The cynic in me can't help but think that the Chief Digital Officer role is a notion created by the tech vendors to perpetuate the idea that the technology is, in and of itself, important. But with most work now performed on commodity technology that is fast becoming an unsustainable argument. Innovation and its consequent business advantage are the important goals, and they will come from making ever-better use of information. So who better to do that than the CIO? But CIOs do have to not only step up to that plate, but also keep moving, for that `plate' is not standing still.