Dramatic change coming for public sector CIOs

The information technology industry is going through unprecedented change, and the role of public sector CIOs will do the same, Alison Brooks of IDC Canada Ltd. told an audience of civil servants in Ottawa.

“The IT industry is in the midst of what we’re calling a once in 20- to 25-year shift,” said Brooks, director of Canadian public sector research for the Toronto-based IT research firm.

That shift is based on cloud computing and mobile devices creating a new platform, the third computing platform, following personal computers and, before that, the mainframe. But that epochal change is not the only factor helping to redefine the public sector CIO’s job.

Other factors include continuing cost pressures, the federal government’s Shared Services initiative to move some aspects out of individual departments and into a centralized organization, several years of minority government in Ottawa and a growing emphasis on “big data” and analytics, Brooks said in a keynote speech at IBM Corp.’s Smarter Government Summit at Ottawa’s Westin Hotel.

Brooks said CIOs IDC has surveyed see consolidation, virtualization and investment in cloud services and collaboration tools as the top three IT initiatives. They feel they have to lead this transformation, she said, and the abbreviation that originally stood for chief information officer will in the future be better interpreted to mean chief innovation officer.

“The role of the CIO has changed already, and is going to be changing pretty dramatically in the short to medium term,” she said.

The concern about aligning IT with business strategy, something industry pundits have been talking about for years, continues to be important, Brooks said. CIOs in the public sector will need to think at a departmental level, know their organizations and become facilitators. Those who continue to focus on technology are likely to become “the casualties of the future,” Brooks said.

The good news for federal IT executives could be that the government’s Shared Services initiative might help them do that by moving some of the basic infrastructure concerns out of their purview. “I think it actually does create space to take advantage of those technologies (such as cloud computing and mobile devices),” Brooks said.

She also saw Shared Services as a kind of repository of best practices drawn from many government departments. The new organization can identify those best practices and implement them more broadly, she suggested.

On the other hand, economic pressures are making the job tougher. All three keynote speakers at the IBM event alluded to financial concerns. Robert Taylor, chief executive of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, said the economic situation ranked as the top public policy priority in his organization’s latest annual survey of the public sector in Canada, and fiscal capacity ranked as the No. 1 management issue.

“It has surpassed other interests,” Taylor said. “Whether we like it or not, that will be the focus of attention.”

But Anne Altman, IBM’s general manager for global public sector, said the current financial crisis would have been even worse had it occurred a couple of decades ago before when some of today’st echnologies, such as advanced analytics tools, were not available.

Brooks agreed that analytics, a key focus for conference organizer IBM, is a currently front and centre. “Big data and analytics (are) going to be what keeps people focused and awake in 2012,” she said.

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