Oh, how far we have come in 20 years as CIOs.

I remember when IT was relegated to the back office, despite the fact businesses considered it an operational necessity. It was 1998, to be precise, and I saw a need for CIOs to network, exchange ideas and learn from each other’s experiences.

And so we started the CIO Association of B.C., with me as founding president alongside committed board members such as Jim Williams (CIO of A&W) and Blaize Reich (Professor at SFU Beedie). Later on, it expanded across Canada and a national organization, the CIO Association of Canada (CIOCAN), was born – it now has more than 400 member CIOs across Canada.

It’s also more relevant than ever. Not only does CIOCAN provide a place to exchange ideas and share experiences, but it was part of a major movement which reinforced the need to ensure that CIOs had a meaningful and strategic role to play at the senior management table.

CIOs then and now

Just 20 years ago, the title Chief Information Officer, or CIO, was not used much and even those who held the title jokingly said that it stood for “Career is Over.” At that time, senior management considered IT a black hole, with technology-related projects inevitably delivered late and over budget. IT was rarely represented at senior management meetings, and new system requirements were given to IT departments to implement rather than discuss as a partner. The CIO’s main function was to translate the technical gobbledygook to something the senior management and board members could readily understand.

The role of IT, as well as the role of the CIO, has since evolved dramatically. The pervasive use of technology in society, to say nothing of the business world, has brought so many critical and strategically divergent issues to the table that every business must deal with them well and in a timely manner or perish.

Over the past 20 years, the CIO’s role has changed from corporate herder of IT talent and explainer of IT black boxes to making sure the corporation is ahead of its competitors, able to attract the right kind of people, and perhaps more importantly, stay out of trouble in areas such as online presence, data security, and privacy. In addition, the CIO today is a business leader, just like other heads of departments such as marketing, finance, or operations. It is the one position in an organization that is required to have an understanding of each and every other department, so that seamless information flows unencumbered.

And yet when I look at one of the first brochures of the CIOABC (see below), the discussion topics have not changed that much. IT staffing, implementing reliable systems and managing data are still challenges for CIOs.  However,  these are now the responsibilities of the full senior leadership team including the CIO.

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Today the CIO’s role is much more than making sure that the organisation has the right IT system – what used to be called the Apple vs. IBM decision. Now IT is not only the oil that keeps the business going, but also deals with issues such as how businesses can leverage social networks; the need to protect the security of customer data; and how to deal with legacy IT systems while implementing new ones. It is no longer about black boxes and technical gobbledygook. IT is a strategically important department that can make or break an organization.

Over the past 20 years, CIOs began to take notice of CIOCAN, particularly due to a National mandate that was focused solely on IT-business leadership. One key differentiator is that CIOCAN offers  a safe haven where CIOs can discuss common issues in an open and sharing manner while being  shielded from vendors’ marketing initiatives. It continues to be  a unique association establishing new local chapters regularly since its inception. CIOs from small and large organizations see value in being members and participating in local and National events such as the upcoming Peer Forum in Vancouver this coming ‪April 10-11.‬

It was a dream that was championed initially by a committed few, and today is shared by hundreds.

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