OPINION: Embracing the challenge of becoming an excellent CIO


8 Jun 2013

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Pictured: Professor Joe McDonagh from the School of Business at Trinity College Dublin

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Trinity College Dublin’s Professor Joe McDonagh says excellent CIOs focus their energy and resources on achieving purposeful change over time.

The term chief information officer (CIO) was first coined almost three decades ago, in the early 1980s. It related to a new organisational role which was characteristically different from its predecessor, namely that of information technology (IT) manager. While the latter was historically viewed as a head of business function, the new role was fashioned as both head of function and member of the executive management team.

Three decades on and one hears constant agonising about the nature of the role of the CIO and whether it has any inherent value now and into the future. Of course, the same agonising has gone on in the past in relation to the role of IT manager and still goes on today in relation to a wide range of other organisational roles.

As researcher, teacher, and mentor, I have had the unique privilege of working extensively with management teams over the last two decades. Indeed, working with such teams not only provides unique insights into the challenges of shaping and delivering large-scale IT-enabled change but also offers sharp perspectives on the unique value which a CIO brings to large organisations. Of course, harnessing this value is not without its challenges as we are about to see.

Prior to taking a closer look at the distinctive challenges involved in being an excellent CIO (not that anyone would aspire to be a poor CIO), it is illuminating to consider the distinctive characteristics that mark this group of organisational professionals. They include:

·       An innate ability to inspire fundamental change not only within but across teams, functions, and organisations;

·       A natural capacity to share leadership  within and across management teams; and

·       A well-honed aptitude to achieve shared objectives by working with and through a range of management teams on a sustained basis.

Essentially, there is a sturdy body of empirical research which asserts that excellent CIOs embody a strong commitment to shared leadership, transformational change, and the discipline and practice of working with and through teams. To excel in these domains is a sure guarantee that the value-adding role of the CIO will be visible to all. To falter is to nurture uncertainty which ultimately leads to questioning the role itself.

With regards to the discipline of teams, an excellent CIO remains vigilant at all times in relation to the differentiated nature of the executive management team, senior functional management teams, and the technology management team. As these teams are profoundly different, an effective CIO recognizes that nurturing strong relationships with these teams is central to success.

Shaping the strategic director of the enterprise

Within the context of the executive management team, the CIO has an unrivalled opportunity to not only shape the strategic direction of the enterprise but also to exploit the full potential of modern technologies in the wider business system in which the enterprise is embedded. When working at this level, the premium is on business systems thinking and the role of strategy in directing the astute allocation of scarce resources in pursuit of priority objectives. It is within the gift of the CIO to lead with confidence when collaborating with members of the executive team on an ongoing basis.

With regards to senior functional management teams, an excellent CIO immediately recognizes the multiplicity of teams and the related uneven distribution of power. Some teams are more powerful than others and as result some business functions have a decided advantage in the resource allocation game. Irrespective of the nature of that game, there are rarely sufficient corporate resources to meet the needs of all teams. Moreover, there is often a shadow side to many of these teams with a pattern of resource allocation to IT emanating from non-IT budgets.

Notwithstanding the challenges of working through the shadow lands, an effective CIO focuses less on the locus of resources and more on influencing the use of these resources in pursuit of priority objectives. By way of giving effect to the agenda for strategic direction and development emanating from the executive management team, the CIO works with senior functional management teams in shaping the ongoing agenda for transforming core and support business functions.

The agenda for change with the technology management team is no less demanding than the agenda with other teams. Often, there is a pressing requirement to both transform the technology management team itself along with the business it is engaged in. An excellent CIO ensures that his or her management team embodies quality in the areas of strategic development, programme delivery, and operations / infrastructure services. Should the team be deficient in any of these core areas of expertise, the consequences will be significant for the relationship between the technology management team and the wider set of teams it serves.

At the heart of shared leadership is a commitment to service. For the CIO, this embodies a commitment to serving members of the executive, senior functional management, and senior technology management. It equally calls for a seamless ability to integrate the worlds of leadership, strategy and change when dealing with the IT agenda in large complex organisations.

Considering that CIO effectiveness is directly related to working with and through management teams, it is difficult to understand why so many CIO leadership development programmes place so little emphasis on this defining element of the CIO’s world. Why do so few programs emphasize the behavioural aspects of change, especially as they relate to the behavior of management teams and corresponding outcomes from IT-enabled change initiatives?

Considering that the field of organisation development and change places a premium on achieving planned change by working with and through others, a CIO is well advised to become grounded in this realm. It holds the key to enhancing performance at individual, group and organisation levels. It equally holds the key to delivering positive change outcomes, a welcome development considering the troublesome nature of many IT-enabled change initiatives.

So, rather than becoming distracted by constant haranguing in relation to the role of the CIO, excellent CIOs focus their energy and resources on achieving purposeful change over time. With a commitment to shared leadership and vigilance in terms of working with and through management teams, excellent CIOs ensure that their role and related functions are of enduring value to large complex organisations.

  • Joe McDonagh is associate professor of organisation development and IT at the School of Business, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. (jmcdongh@tcd.ie).