How CIOs get in the boardroom: Stability + flexibility

CALGARY – Canadian CIOs need to strike a balance between offering a flexible work environment with stability in their IT infrastructure if they want to earn the respect and trust of senior management, according to a panel of technology management experts.

Speaking at an invitation-only event hosted by Telus late last week, executives from Cisco, the University of Calgary and elsewhere discussed the ongoing issue of how chief information officers can evolve from trusted advisors to key decision-makers in large organizations. While no one was able to offer a fool-proof formula, panellists agreed that key steps along the way include nurturing relationships with other business managers and ensuring that network performance is high.

Jeff Seifert, chief technology officer at Cisco Systems of Canada in Toronto, admitted that even one of the world’s largest vendors has had to learn about adapting to changing needs and expectations from various parts of the business. Although Seifert said his team was very focused on operational efficiency, there were thousands of employees who decided to go around the IT department and purchase their own MacBook Pros. The staff even set up their own internal wiki to provide each other with help desk-style support before the devices became officially sanctioned and supported by the company directly.

“We took a radical change,” he said. “We now allow teleworking and bring-your-own-device. And because of that we’re able to attract better talent. It’s not about pay but offering flexibility.”

Similar issues crop up in education, according to Ron Murch, senior instructor emeritus, Management Information Systems at the University of Caglary’s Haskayne School of Business. At his institution, for example, there is typically only a few weeks in the year to make really major changes in IT infrastructure. “But guess when people want to take their vacation? August and at Christmas,” he said.

While IT departments are viewed as a cost centre, CIOs shouldn’t always equate expense reductions with working towards business objectives, Murch added. “You don’t just want to cut the cost. You want to increase the margin,” he said. “You can reduce expenses to zero, but if IT is constantly being called to cut costs, there’s something else going on.”

Seifert suggested IT demonstrate value by spending more time on user interface issues. He cited social media platforms, which some companies are adapting to improve customer service channels. “Being a great CIO is about prioritizing the opportunities,” he said.

Richard Ogilvie, Vice President of Corporate Services, EnForm, the safety association for the upstream oil and gas industry, likened the challenge for CIOs and IT departments to Blockbuster, a bricks-and-mortar organization that recently filed for bankruptcy after being surpassed by more nimble online rivals such as Netflix. “You have to stay relevant to the customer,” he said.

Murch suggested CIOs could increase their likelihood of joining senior management discussions by spending their time volunteering to sit on other boards, such as charitable organizations where technology is a means to an end. “You develop that appreciation of what the organization is trying to accomplish and how a stable IT system is a part of it,” he said, adding that work which helps bring a company in line with regulations also helps CIOs, because those kinds of issues matter to directors.

Ultimately, however, CIOs will have to work for their place at the table, the panellists agreed. Said Murch: “It’s more a relationship than a right.”
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