Technology

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The company CIO: Are they really just emperors who have no clothes?

Lack of relevance and no definition of the role is a death knell for many information officers

Adrian Weckler

Published 09/01/2014 | 02:30

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Does your company have a 'chief information officer'? If so, do you know what he or she actually does? According to recent studies, you don't. What's more, CIOs all over the place are being fired, demoted or are resigning.

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A lack of relevance is one reason why. A large survey of Irish CIOs by Deloitte before Christmas found that just 24pc of Irish CIOs described their IT departments as "hubs of innovative development".

Furthermore, most Irish CIOs don't even think they're much good at basic business stuff, with almost two thirds saying that they are either "poor" or "fair" at being "strategic business partners" within their company.

The picture for CIOs looks even worse when other recent surveys are examined.

A study by the UK-based Tech Pro Research found that many fellow executives regard their CIOs as disposable wafflers. Specifically, while 64pc of UK CIOs may think their role has become more relevant, a much slimmer 38pc of their executive colleagues think the same thing.

So is it simply that Powerpoint peptalks on 'innovation' aren't hitting home as intended? Or are modern board members just unappreciative of their CIO colleagues' efforts to drag them into 2014?

The situation is no chirpier at government level. Ireland's first ever government CIO, Bill McCluggage, resigned last month just six months after taking charge.

'Personal reasons' was the stated cause for his resignation. But the vague and jargon-coated role he was assigned here neatly sums up the existential difficulties attached to chief information officers everywhere. Mr McCluggage is a highly-decorated IT executive with extensive experience at government level.

His job, according to the government, was to "positively influence the direction of technology-enabled change" and to hold "ultimate responsibility for the strategic direction of technology in support of the wider mission and strategic change objectives" in the government and public sector.

I asked McCluggage outright what this meant. Was it to tell state bodies what software to use? Was it to choose computer systems? Was it to give government ministers a steer on whether they should have iPhones or Samsungs?

He said that it was probably a mixture of all of them. But a large part of it would, he thought, be caught up in sorting out IT budgets across different parts of government.

"We don't quite know how much we spend with various suppliers and departments," he said. "Like how much we spend with Oracle or with Microsoft. Each of the departments probably knows how much it's paying for those services but I'm looking for those basics to be simplified."

It remains to be seen whether the Government will seek to hire a new CIO. In Britain, they've simply stopped trying: the government there axed the position of CIO, saying that "the cross-government role is no longer central to delivery". The executive director of the British Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, went further, saying that "too many public sector CIOs spend their time managing contracts and not creating better services for the public".

Is this a fair summary of the modern CIO? Not surprisingly, Irish executives occupying that role believe it is not. In fact, Irish CIOs think that their executive colleagues just don't get IT, with 'a lack of understanding of IT' from fellow executives rated as the biggest barrier to their own jobs, according to the recent Deloitte survey.

But much of the modern day CIO's demise may be put down to the unfortunate lack of definition attached to the role. While chief technology officers (CTOs) are usually engineers who know how to get under the hood of a server, CIOs are often middle-managers who are credited with "knowing a bit about tech and stuff" by older, tech-shy managing directors.

Their role is often to assuage senior tech beginners in corporate language they understand. Coming up with disruptive ways of doing things is seen as much as a threat as something to be desired. Many CIOs are simply emperors with no clothes. And sunlight can be very unflattering.

Irish Independent

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