Summit Dreams

Summit Dreams

Time was, the highest peak a CIO might hope to scale was a seat at the executive table. Now it seems that was only the base camp. Beverley Head explores what it takes to conquer the highest corporate peaks

An in-depth study of five top CIOs conducted in the UK took in this comment from an oil company information systems executive:"You may have a vision of the Everest you want to climb, but you have no way of knowing how you are going to get to it. It is the classic multilevel mountain climb, where you have to scale the first stage to see the next stage more clearly."

It is an apposite description of the nature of the role of the CIO.

Time was when the CIO coveted an audience with the CEO, with the CFO and perhaps a seat at the executive management table. It now seems that this was a false summit for some CIOs who are now moving on to become uber-influencers of strategy in a select group of corporations.

David Feeny, director of the Oxford Institute of Information Management, and half of a two-man team that has been conducting the in-depth interviews with the five CIOs, believes that for a select few there is now the opportunity to become"more than just a member of a team; to become one of the inner circle who the CEO seeks out". To maintain the Everest analogy - there may be dozens of team members at the base camps, but only a handful will be selected for the final assault on the summit. The smart CIO ought to be one of them, Feeny argues.

Feeny, interviewed during a recent visit to Australia where he presented at a CIO masterclass organised by the Australian Graduate School of Management, notes that:"As technology changes and becomes potentially more significant to business, the stakes for the CIO raise each time. Some become more influential and others are sidelined." What separates those picked for the summit, says Feeny, is their overwhelming proactiveness."This is to do with the calibre of the CIO; those individuals who thrive on entrepreneurial activity. Certain CIOs are prepared to let go of their ownership of the empire. They are no longer concerned about their empire, their budget, their headcount - but they are concerned with being at the centre of the organisation."

Two characteristics seem to stand out among CIOs Feeny has met who have made it into the inner circle. First, they are prepared to take on a role as orchestrators of information services rather than as owners of information services. Second, they are immensely proactive. Indeed some CIOs described this proactivity as being on the verge of"bullying" senior executives in order to prompt change.

So are Australian CIOs embracing this notion of being an internal entrepreneur? Are they launching their own assaults, if not on Everest then at least on Kosciuszko?

The track Dr Louise Tucker describes is more akin to slogging over an entire alpine range of mountains than scaling a single monolith. Chief information officer for the ACT Department of Education and Community Services (DECS), Tucker believes that she has the entrepreneurial spirit, but acknowledges that the spirit is tethered by the fact that"government, and in particular the ACT government, is cash-strapped". Lack of funds has stifled many a budding entrepreneur in both public and private sectors.

However, Tucker is not convinced that all CIOs want to be seen as the internal entrepreneur making great advances on behalf of the enterprise. She instead suggests that the CIO is often happy to play the role of the back-room influencer, certainly effecting change, but not always seeking the credit.

"The CIO's role is to introduce a new way of thinking," Tucker says."A lot of this is iterative. It might be wireless or call centres for example, and introducing these technologies into a range of discussions to explain what people can do with it." This technique she says involves letting the business adopt an idea, claim ownership and then run with the idea."We have to give them lots of opportunities and expose them to a range of technologies."

She finds the notion that CIOs can become internal entrepreneurs interesting, but still prefers the description"influencer", and believes that subtlety rather than bombast will have the greatest effect."I think that it is a change agent's job, but that it is a subtle one."

Over in the private sector at financial services enterprise MLC there is less focus on subtlety per se, but no less influence.

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