Mr CIO: Can You Give Up the Control of Nuts & Bolts to Move to A Business Role?

Yet another report tries to demystify the new CIO. An Ernst & Young report, The DNA of the CIO: Opening the door to the C-Suite (You can download the full report here), claims it provides fresh insight into what is to be a CIO today. The report, the result of a survey among 300-odd CIOs and some 40 other CXOs to provide,  “a perspective on how the CIO is perceived by the rest of the executive management team.”

The report builds a profile of the typical CIO (He is 43 years, male typically), gets into how his role is changing, what comes in the way of his effectiveness, and even provides a toolkit for the aspiring CIO. It even has an interesting video

Getting into the C-suite has been a consistent dream for the CIOs in recent times. A select few have managed to achieve it. Most others are in the aspirational mode. In my five years as the editor of Dataquest, I have been part of many formal (panel discussions, Q&As) and informal discussions with CIOs on various topics: technology, products, hiring, managing, their role, their interests. But invariably I have found the discussion steering towards the role and responsibilities of the CIO, never mind if the topic was BI or cloud or BYOD, not to talk of management issues. The exact nature of discussion would vary depending on whom you are talking. For a very small number, the aspiration is the CEO/COO position. For the rest, it is still, being regarded as part of the top management. The E&Y survey finds that only 17% the CIOs that it spoke to are part of the executive management team. That percentage would be far lower in India.

But that is not surprising. Neither is it a reflection of the CIO’s capability, considering that IT is fairly new to the enterprises as a separate function.

But there is something I find dichotomous. Almost very CIO believes that he is performing a business role and should be part of the top management/board. But when I’ve asked if he (the gender non-neutrality is because I have not asked the question to a single woman CIO yet, my apologies) would be willing to give up the control of IT infrastructure, which he anyway admits is non-strategic, I have rarely (once, to be precise) heard Yes for an answer. I must have asked this question to some 60 odd CIOs.

But will not giving up the nuts-and-bolts which eats up lots of his time, free him to focus more on working with business to assess the need of solutions that the latter needs and formulate a better IT strategy? In other words, while the demand side of IT is managed by the C-suite CIO, the pretty standard supply side is managed by someone else?

Why is the reluctance then? And if the other C-suiters believe that he is helpful only in fixing their laptops (see the E&Y video, linked above), how can they be blamed?

“Unless you can have the end-to-end control,” a few would argue, “you cannot really achieve what you want to.” The looks in their eyes give clear indication that they know I am not convinced. The truth is, most of them are themselves not convinced about this.

If they want to hold on to the servers and networking and laptops, because they think that is where they derive their power from. It gives them the control of a critical infrastructure and hence the organization is highly dependent on them.  But alas, this dependence is the reason why the CEO does not want him in strategy meetings. He should better be in the server room doing the firefighting!

Also, another thing that goes unsaid, is that the control over hardware and networking also gives them control over that budget. That is a huge part of IT spending. That makes them important in the eyes of the vendors. They get chased; get invited to parties and great locations; get featured in the media. Their classmate who joined Infosys after  college may be getting a fatter salary and a few overseas assignments; but he never gets that kind of importance that the vendors give him.

The proposition is simple. If more CIOs want to be considered moving up the value chain, they have to do that by vacating the lowest value tasks that they do. Many of them agree that IT infrastructure fire-fighting is one of the lowest value jobs that they do. So, doesn’t it make sense to just say good bye to that?

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