business executive evolving over time

I was recently at a job interview at which I was asked by the CEO what I would do (as the senior IT/IS leader in the organization) to make his life easier. My response included the typical “reduce cost, reduce risk, improve efficiency” lines, but what got his head nodding in agreement was my explanation that – probably a couple years out – I would want the IT/IS to be at the forefront of the company’s strategy and not solely ‘aligned’ with the strategy. To me, this should be standard, but apparently it isn’t. Over the next several posts, I’ll be exploring what I believe to be the major contributors to this gap.

The traditional CIO

Almost 15 years ago I completed my MBA to complement my computer science degree. Upon graduation, I knew the career I was seeking would be a combination of business and IT. I spent a number of years in the world of business analysis and eventually set my sites on the role of CIO. To me, the CIO role appeared to be the ideal means to leverage my technical and business education, experience, and expertise.

As I moved to more senior roles, I began to gain more exposure to the CIO position, and what I saw surprised me. For the most part, the CIOs I saw either were senior technologists whose experience lay within IT infrastructure, or the CIOs were so focused on ‘keeping the lights on’ that the applications side of the shop was clearly not their priority. As someone who had come up the applications ranks, this was discouraging, as it appeared that future opportunities would be limited due to me being on the “wrong” side. Looking back on it now, I obviously do understand the absolute necessity of keeping the lights on; at the same time, I wonder how those CIOs – and those IT infrastructure & operations teams – are faring in today’s world.

Turning the tables

Fast forward to today and the world of IT infrastructure and operations looks dramatically different than it did 10 or 15 years ago. In all but the largest organizations, IT infrastructure (hardware, helpdesk, server and desktop maintenance) can be outsourced. Whether that outsourcing includes public or private clouds, virtualization, SaaS, IaaS, or any other buzzword is irrelevant; by outsourcing, organizations can keep staff focused on meeting their business needs, not tie up cash in hardware assets, and gain additional benefits. Personally, I haven’t witnessed an organization that has brought such outsourcing back in-house after taking it out. Essentially, keeping the lights has redefined itself today , where organizations find they’re better outsourcing maintenance functions and keeping their (now smaller) IT teams focused on aspects that truly add value to the business.

Today it is the applications side of the shop that has become paramount in regards to in-house staffing, budgeting, and priorities.

So, in a world of outsourced IT infrastructure and operations, and a new strategic focus on applications, what happens to the “traditional” CIO who either had personally gained experience solely within Infrastructure, or who had spent their career focusing on it? They need to quickly understand the changes around them and make the necessary adjustments to their staffing, budgets, and personal skillsets, to succeed in today’s world.

What the future holds

There are many examples that demonstrate the necessity of CIOs to adapt to the applications side, one being the adoption of self-service, software-as-a-service solutions by companies’ own staff. Providers such as Salesforce and Dropbox focus almost solely on the adoption of their solutions by end users, rather than provision through corporate IT departments. While CIOs are (correctly) concerned about issues such as security, what are traditional CIOs doing about the security of corporate data being shared via Dropbox or managed in the Salesforce cloud independently from enterprise systems? The “easy” response from such CIOs is to lock users out from accessing such systems, but in today’s world is that really the most appropriate response?

One change CIOs should expect to the role involves developing advanced technology such as cloud computing and virtualization, amazingly, only about half of CIOs actually expect their role to change over the next five years. This statistic is in comparison to approximately 79% of CIOs in Asia and 78% of CIOs in Latin America who expect their role to change over the same timeframe.

Having said this, do the applications-side CIOs have an advantage over the infrastructure-side CIOs? Not necessarily. CIOs that saw their and their team’s value in building custom solutions for their organizations may also not be recognizing the changes around them, but we’ll leave this for a future post.

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