Wanted – CIOs who are business leaders, not button-pushers

Canadian CIOs see their role shifting to focus more on business leadership and less on the daily mundane tasks of tech support, but don’t quite think they’re ready for the job yet, according to new poll results.

More than 80 chief information officers (CIOs) gathered recently at the CIO Association of Canada‘s (CIOCAN) peer forum. In between key note speeches, discussion panels and snack breaks, the group buzzed-in on electronic remotes to register their opinion on the statements and questions put forward at the event.

The results offer a window into the minds of CIOs, and what they expect from their jobs in the near future. Almost nine in 10 CIOs agree, for example, that their roles “will have little resemblance to the CIOs of years past, in background, time distribution and influence.”

Also telling is the 98 per cent that agreed or strongly agreed that “CIOs are now expected to deliver the solutions that make the enterprise different in a way that matters to company performance and customer satisfaction.” It seems the general consensus amongst Canadian CIOs is they will become business leaders first, and technology leaders second, says CIOCAN founder Catherine Boivie.

“Technology has come to the point where it is a part of every business process,” she says. “Now it’s about how technology will enable the business.”

But not many companies seem to be catching on to the new business-minded CIO role. Nearly three-quarters of CIOs agreed that Canadian companies aren’t taking advantage of the changing role. Over half also agreed Canadian companies aren’t prepared for the newfangled CIO.

For larger organizations, preparing for that new role might involve splitting the current CIO role into two positions, Boivie says. One general manager style of CIO and another strategic business style of CIO.

“My point of view is that it is not enough to just run a stable IT organization,” the CIOCAN president says. “The role of the CIO is also to enable business technology. Sometimes the same person doesn’t have both skill sets.”

However, IT futurist Thornton May disagrees. Having two different roles is not the best path to go down, and a CIO should be both someone that can both have a good idea and have the skill set to execute it on the shop floor.

“What makes a great strategy is not just the idea itself, but the execution of that idea,” he says. “If you separate them, then you’re going to have problems.”

Organizations must also start looking at CIOs like chief operating officers, Boivie says. They should be considered knowledgeable about every area of business, and provide more than just technology specific answers. Interactions between the CIO and other top-level executives should be occurring on a regular basis.

The CIO will be the enterprise’s key to successful collaboration, futurist May says. They create the infrastructure and the model that idea-sharing is based on, and will soon touch many different areas of business.

“The thing that we should not lose sight of is that this technology stuff is really amazing. It gives you a very affordable way of reaching deep into the minds of your customers,” May says. “The future CIO is going to reach deep into the marketing division of the enterprise, and the product division of the enterprise.”

Most CIOs feel they have the right skills to tackle their future role as business strategists and collaborators. Over six in 10 say they have almost all of the needed skills for their new mandate. But the information chiefs are uncertain they’re using those skills to respond well to that new role. Four in 10 say they’re not doing well, and three in 10 aren’t sure how they’re doing.

“Once CIOs let go of the every-day items and focus more on the business items, it will be easier,” Boivie says. CIOs struggling with their new role should assign a manager to take over daily time-consuming tasks and only get involved when something goes wrong.

Also the top information officer at Burnaby, B.C.-based Pacific Blue Cross, Boivie says her peers need to start promoting their word to highlight the changes they’ve made to business processes. That will start the ball rolling with getting recognition from within the company and help to build confidence.

“It is up to the CIO to show what difference he or she can make in the business area,” Boivie says. “The CIO must understand the business, must have good communication skills and networking skills.”

But CIO uncertainty about their adequacy for the new role is just typical Canadian humility at work, May says. Canada is usually seen as a resource rich country abroad, and savvy CIOs are now considered one such plentiful resource the country has to offer.

“I actually see the international head-hunting firms coming to Canada, targeting the CIOs and moving them to different positions,” May says. “When you see these classic train wrecks of IT, it doesn’t seem to happen in Canada.”

Canadian companies should take note of May’s warning. If they don’t offer the evolving role that CIOs are expecting over the next few years, firms might be searching for a replacement on job boards.

CIOs seem to have a penchant for a change of scenery, with about twice as many seeing themselves at a different organization in five years compared to the ones who plan to stay put, according to the survey.

“We live change management every day,” explains Boivie. “So a change in learning is really important to CIOs.”

Indeed, for CIOs, change is a way of life, she adds.

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