CIO role: A juggling act

In 2009 IBM published a study based on interviews of 2,500 CIOs from across the globe. They found:

“The voice of the CIO is being heard in new ways – as CIOs are increasingly recognized as full-fledged members of the senior executive team. Successful CIOs are much more actively engaged in setting strategy, enabling flexibility and change, and solving business problems, not just IT problems”.Many of the CIOs most important goals seemed to clash, e.g. how to be innovative whilst relentlessly cutting costs and how to introduce new services without causing disruption to the business.  These conflicting goals make the CIO role a constant juggling act.

The juggling act

The IBM study found that successful CIOs are simultaneously juggling three pairs of activities at any one time.

CIO juggling actFigure 1: The Juggling Act (IBM, 2009)

Juggling three roles

By integrating these three roles, visionary but pragmatist, value creator but cost-cutter and collaborative business leader and an inspiring IT leader; the CIO aims to :

      1. Make innovations real,
      2. Increase the ROI of IT and
      3. Expand the business impact.

Let’s look at each of these aims individually.

Making innovations real

Successful CIOs are active members of the executive team. They are always looking for ways in which technology and data can be used to improve products and services or open new market opportunities. They have a wide sphere of influence across the organisation and they encourage IT and business to co-create innovation opportunities. Visionaries also generate excitement from the business through ideas that differentiate the organization from others. They treat information as an asset and seek to leverage information for competitive advantage.

CIOs know that being visionaries and bringing new ideas is only part of the job. Keeping the wheels of the organisation turning smoothly and efficiently is a must. They recognise that faultless service delivery remains at the heart of their credibility and influence. Pragmatic CIOs understand what their organisations do well and effectively use third-party service providers to get results. They collaborate well within IT and with external partners to help make ideas a reality. These CIOs make it easy to work together and deliver results. To stretch as a Pragmatist, a CIO sets goals like achieving higher productivity and helping the organization become more flexible.

Raising ROI of IT

IBM found, “CIOs become Value Creators when they work with the business to enable superior customer experiences”. As more and more business is conducted via electronic means, customer interactions with business become easier and create value for the enterprise. Helping organisations leverage facts to gain new customer insights also leads to value creation opportunities. In some businesses, CIOs are leaders in establishing collaborative relationships with their high value customers / partners and finding ways to improve and enrich customer interactions.

While looking for new ways to create value, CIOs everywhere are continually finding ways to improve efficiency, streamline operations and cut costs where possible. Their mantra is to do more with less. CIOs drive centralisation of services and infrastructure to gain scale benefits. CIOs use standardisation, simplification and automation to cut more costs. Attacking business process inefficiencies and supporting IT solutions is another focus. Relentlessly focusing on cost cutting enables the CIOs to redeploy their departments’ efforts into creating more value opportunities.

Expanding the business impact

Successful CIOs act as true business partners. They work as collaborative business leaders in driving cultural change across organisations. “I help business leaders figure out what they want to do with technology, then I work on how to deliver it,” said a Defence and Security CIO in the United States. CIOs regularly meet with the board and executives and are fully across key business decisions and challenges. They understand changing future business models and remain alert to rapidly facilitating business model changes with enabling technology.

CIOs understand that while remaining engaged with the business leadership is important, maintaining IT expertise is also critical. They create an environment that helps the organisation to develop and apply IT expertise. CIOs encourage professional staff to learn and develop not only their IT skills but also their business acumen. Furthermore, many CIOs create IT centres of excellence to develop greater IT expertise. These centres can also create business technology innovation opportunities.

CIO profiles in high-growth and low-growth organizations differ

The 2009 IBM CIO study found that the profiles of CIOs who work in low-growth organisations were more like those of  IT Managers. They were good at leading  IT staff but weak in five other areas. On the other hand, CIOs in medium growth companies had a well-balanced profile across all six dimensions. High-growth company CIO profiles showed less emphasis on IT leadership skills but higher scores on every other dimension.

  1. An Insightful Visionary and an Able Pragmatist – The Insightful Visionary helps the business explore how technology can drive innovation, while the Able Pragmatist makes it possible to bring creative plans to life.
  2. A Savvy Value Creator and a Relentless Cost Cutter – The Savvy Value Creator devises better solutions by understanding customers’ needs, while the Relentless Cost Cutter stays vigilant about trimming expenses wherever possible.
  3. A Collaborative Business Leader and an Inspiring IT Manager – The Collaborative Business Leader thoroughly understands the business and builds strong partnerships internally and externally. The Inspiring IT Manager demonstrates personal IT expertise and advocates deeper skills across the IT organization.

Let’s look at these in detail.

A dozen tips for success

Not every CIO is strong on each one of the six dimensions above. The experiences of over 2,500 CIOs worldwide suggested some key actions to strengthen the areas where CIOs may not be doing enough.

Make innovation real:

  1. Champion business and technology integration
  2. Encourage innovation not just in the IT organization but in the broader group as well
  3. Make working together with IT easy
  4. Concentrate on core competencies and leverage suppliers where right

Raise the ROI of IT:

  1. Find way to reach customers in new ways
  2. Enhance integration between IT and business and transparency
  3. Standardize and centralize IT systems and technologies to economize
  4. Keep cost reduction a top priority.

Increase the business impact:

  1. Know the business well.  Present and measure IT in business terms
  2. Get involved with business peers in non-IT projects
  3. Lead the IT forces and cultivate truly extraordinary IT talent
  4. Enhance the data and turn it into usable information for the business

The balancing act

Many CIOs understand the balancing act necessary in their roles and work with goals that seem to be the opposite of each other. In doing so, they show a deep understanding of their role as CIOs and a high level of sophistication. Consequently, these CIOs are able to focus on what matters most in their organisations.

Happy juggling!!