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February 1, 2017updated 02 Feb 2017 8:52am

The changing face of IT leadership: CIOs ascendant

The wind of change is blowing in the corridors of power - the CIO is on the rise.

By Ellie Burns

As technology and business merged over the past few decades, the concept of the chief information officer (CIO) has evolved to meet the growing need for someone to oversee, and deal with, the different computer systems suddenly popping up across the enterprise. He or she was often viewed as the head of IT, squirrelled away somewhere with a flashing server while the ‘real’ business leaders made important strategic decisions in a room with big windows.

But that evolution didn’t stop there. As the information generated by those computer

CIOs IT leadership

Graeme Thompson, CIO at Informatica.

systems has become increasingly essential for business success, the function and perception of the CIO has crossed over from backroom to boardroom. He who controls the information controls the business, and thus the CIO now has a highly important role to play in senior management.

Information is now the single most valuable asset available to a business, and as a result the responsibility and influence of the CIO is evolving at pace. With the rise of the cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT), valuable data is pouring into businesses at an exponential rate. As customers increasingly come to expect a highly personalised experience, getting the greatest possible value out of that data is key to success. The CIO is tasked with overseeing the consolidation of data from hundreds of sources, enabling the company to extract relevant insights and ultimately driving revenue growth as a result.

The CIO has a unique advantage in this aim thanks to their overarching view over the company’s information assets. In an average mid-sized business, for example, the marketing department may run its campaigns on a dedicated platform like Marketo, while the sales teams record their leads in Salesforce. Neither has a view into the other’s data. The CIO, on the other hand, has responsibility across business units and is able to see what data is stored by the company across all these platforms. Importantly, this gives them the opportunity to spot where relevant connections can be drawn between disparate data stores. For example, giving sales reps access to social media interaction data from marketing teams so they know which companies or individuals have been showing interest in the company online.

However, the task of connecting data is becoming more complex, as corporate information sources exist across a widening range of locations. The CIO of a manufacturing company, for example, may have several thousand shop-floor sensors to manage, all feeding in gigabytes of real-time data on everything from temperature and humidity to production count and fault reports. Meanwhile, line-of-business units could be racking up information in cloud-based Software-as-a-Service apps and self-service analytics platforms. For the modern CIO, the key challenge is to enable the business to efficiently sort and make use of the data available, making the relevant patterns and trends available in as close to real-time as possible.

Of course, there is more to the role of CIO than just technical wrangling. A growing number of CIOs aren’t IT stalwarts. Instead, they are experienced businesspeople with a strong understanding of operational discipline, efficiency and measurement and are best equipped to improve their team’s and the company’s performance. The CIO role is essentially an enabling generalist – a leader with a view into each of their team members’ areas of expertise, who can unite them for a single purpose. Part of this is about rallying IT teams around the most important issues to the business. To do that the CIO needs to be able to enfranchise each team member and make clear in the wider context of the business why they are doing what they are doing.

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Finally, for the new breed of CIO trying to get data analytics into the boardroom and educate the business as a whole about their role, it’s essential to be proactive in taking responsibility for important, high profile projects. By requesting the lead, the CIO can demonstrate not only their technical ability, but also how IT dovetails with and can lead transformation in flagship initiatives. In a software company, for example, by taking responsibility for overhauling the company’s subscription fulfilment model, the CIO becomes a key player in leading both a technical project and a major change to how the company does business.

At the end of the day, there are significant rewards up for grabs for companies which switch on to their information potential: it hands them a leg up on their competitors. Take the hospitality sector as a good example of what happens when companies maximise their information resources. For centuries you had to own buildings and employ staff to be a hotel – but Airbnb upended that with its information-first approach to accommodation. In just a few short years, it expanded the market massively, providing accommodation for millions of people who wouldn’t previously have been able to afford it, and stealing a run on its competitors in the process.

The CIO holds the reins of company information, and as such, organisations across all sectors should turn to them for help and guidance. The CIO must now move into the boardroom, aiming to unite the whole business and all of its technological systems behind strategic projects which will push the company toward new successes. Management should also focus on enterprise-wide optimisation rather than just individual departmental improvements – only when information from across the business is brought to bear on a problem can new initiatives succeed.

The CIO is now steward of the company’s most valuable asset. It’s time to step up and take responsibility – the CIO owns the future of business.

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