The role of the CIO has changed constantly over the years. At first they were keepers of the mainframes, with the charge of automating back-office functions to speed up processing times and reduce headcounts.
There was no such thing as off-the-shelf packages in those early days – all software was homegrown and needed large numbers of programmers to write and maintain it. Almost all CIOs had technical backgrounds and were recruited from outside the company for their ability to manage program development. As a result, knowledge of the business was limited and there was little incentive for CIOs to move beyond their own patch.
Mainframe to client/server
The shift to client server computing forced the CIOs out of their super-chilled computer rooms into the company at large. This was the user’s domain and CIOs needed to work with their line counterparts if they wanted to achieve anything.
As off-the-shelf software become commonplace, CIOs weren’t required to be experts in software development – the game was now all about installation. In the late 1990s, the need for CIOs to have strong technical skills was further diluted by the trend of outsourcing.
IT is all about the cloud
More than 15 years later and IT is all about the cloud, both with software and data, and doubts are being raised about the function of the CIO.
Some pundits argue that IT has become so commoditised and consumerised, with a plethora of as-a-service applications available to meet the needs of line-of-business managers, that the CIO role has become obsolete.
There is some justification for this argument. IT has become an enabler for every part of the business, and line managers are willing to take responsibility for their own IT if it means they can achieve their objectives. They are tired of being told they can’t have an application or will have to get in the queue, sometimes for years, while an application is evaluated, tested and implemented when they can get it as-a-service for a few dollars a month.
IT challenges are also enterprise challenges
The problem with this approach, says author of The Digital Economy Don Tapscott, is that any IT challenge is also an enterprise challenge.
The proliferation of ‘shadow IT’ inevitably leads to the reinvention of the wheel when companies need an enterprise architecture giving one version of the truth and a resource of big data.
Organisations also need to know they’re secure against cyber-threats and they have business continuity. There also needs to be an enterprise-wide strategy for collaboration tools and other apps that cuts across business silos.
Reimagining the CIO
The solution to dealing with the complexities of becoming a digital business lies in reimagining the role of the CIO in a way that makes it more important than ever.
Tapscott calls it the “IT services supermarket” and he envisages a new-look CIO who is able to anticipate business needs and provisions a digital ‘supermarket’ with a comprehensive range of services – mobile device standards, applications complying with the enterprise architecture and cloud services.
In an era of enterprise mobility and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategies, it goes without saying that these services and applications scale to suit whatever device the user is accessing corporate systems on – desktop PC, laptop, ultrabook, tablet or smartphone – and are inherently secure.
A line-of-business manager is then able to browse the virtual shelves of the digital supermarket, selecting the services and service levels they need to meet their technology requirements.
The third era of enterprise IT
Another element of the change from chief information officer to chief innovation officer is the ability to flip long-standing behaviours and beliefs, according to Gartner’s Flipping to Digital Leadership: The 2015 CIO Agenda Report.
The report argues we have moved into the third era of enterprise IT: “CIOs must accept the ‘digital now, digital first’ reality, address long-standing challenges in value and risk management that could thwart digitalisation, and replace pragmatic command and control with visionary and inspiration.”
One of the first things CIOs must do to achieve this aim is to move away from the traditional mindset around legacy assets and capabilities.
Instead of nurturing and evolving legacy systems, the CIO needs to start with a digital-first mindset and work backwards from that. Hand in hand with this shift of mindset is the shift away from short-term, input-centric value measurement.
Success in the digital-first world needs platforms that may not meet accepted time frames of ROI, but are able to rapidly evolve to deal with change and uncertainty.
The shift from chief information to chief innovation officer is not a small change. It will demand commitment and focus from CIOs who will in turn need support from their CEOs and C-suite peers.
For organisations with CIOs who succeed, the prize could not be bigger. And for the individual CIOs, the personal impact will be even more profound.
For more information on how tech is changing the role of the CIO visit Lenovo’s Think FWD Think Space.