Role play

31 Dec 2009

It’s a time of evolution for CIOs across Europe, with their voices being heard more in boardrooms and their faces known across businesses. And a recent survey shows Irish CIOs are ready to maximise the opportunity, writes SORCHA CORCORAN.

The chief information officer (CIO) role within companies is becoming more strategic globally, as cost control has become more prominent as a business priority than it used to be. But for IT to be really strategic, the CIO needs a strong personal brand, according to James Hallahan, managing director of Harvey Nash Ireland.

He was speaking following the launch of the Harvey Nash Strategic Insights Survey, which looked at IT leadership across Europe. It reflected the views of over 1,300 IT leaders, 10pc of whom were from Ireland.

“In a way, the European CIO is becoming the chief process officer, as the function has become more granular, looking at the detail of how organisations are spending IT money and what savings are being made. CIOs need to look at what collaboration tools they need to increase operational effectiveness and the board of directors is looking to IT to innovate more in the current marketplace,” says Hallahan.

The Harvey Nash survey showed that 86pc of respondents had been asked by the business to provide technology innovation to aid competitive advantage.

Hallahan continues: “The stronger the CIO’s personal brand, the more likely it is that the IT function will have a good working relationship with the rest of the business. It’s important companies spend time understanding what this internal brand stands for in the market and the organisation the CIO is working for. Once people understand what it is, they have to then make sure they’re clear on what journey is required to get where they want it to be. It’s about blogging, attending the right leadership events and running projects that deliver real value – rather than just being there for the sake of the individual project and of having the latest technology.”

At an event in May, 126 CIOs and senior IT leaders gathered in Dublin to discuss the findings of the Harvey Nash survey. Some delegates echoed Hallahan’s thoughts. For example, Anne Weatherston, CIO at Bank of Ireland, commented: “Banks that come out of this downturn successfully will be the ones that deploy technology efficiently in their existing services and as a way of delivering new services and channels to the market.”

Getting on board

Board membership for IT leaders in Ireland was 44pc, according to the survey, and 56pc of Irish respondents see the strategic influence of the technology function growing in 2009. Interestingly, this latter figure was a good bit lower than the Europe-wide average of 64pc.

“The Irish community weren’t quite as optimistic around the strategic involvement of CIOs. This is probably because a lot of CIOs report into the finance department rather than to the CEO. Therefore IT is often seen as a cost function that needs to be managed as opposed to a business driver. But this is changing,” says Hallahan. “This is one of the things that came up at the event in Dublin in May. A lot of delegates felt it was a generational thing and that going forward technology will be much more integrated into businesses. With telecoms and new media growing, the new generation of CIOs will more and more naturally have a seat on the board of directors.”

At the May event, Paul Toner of KPMG agreed, saying: “IT leaders are moving back to board-level positions in much the same way as they did in the Eighties and Nineties – they need to bring the power of IT to the top table.’

Under pressure

Irish CIOs are under more pressure from a budget perspective than their European peers. Almost two thirds (59pc) of Irish respondents saw their IT budget decline this year, 17pc more than the European average. On top of this, 57pc expect further cuts in 2010.

“It was very clear at the Dublin event that cost savings have been in the business strategy for the past 18 months to two years. It’s all about getting more for less in Irish IT departments.”

A significant proportion of CIOs in Ireland haven’t experienced such economic constraints from a management perspective before. While 72pc of IT leaders across Europe were in an IT management position during the 1999/2000 downturn, only 56pc of Irish IT leaders were. Similarly, in the 1991/92 recession, only 18pc of Irish IT leaders were in a management role, 15pc lower than the European average.

“There may be fewer IT leaders with past management experience of recession, but the way Irish IT leaders are reacting to this downturn is very positive. For example, they are investing up to 8pc of their budgets in innovation, which is higher than their European colleagues. Equally, 26pc plan to increase investment in outsourcing, which shows their understanding of the need to look at this area to get the best returns on business critical projects as well as the best talent involved in delivering those projects,” says Hallahan.

“Irish IT leaders are not panicking or resorting to knee-jerk decision-making – 46pc have changed some of their IT strategy in line with changing economic conditions, but this is largely in line with changes seen across Europe.”

Theory of evolution

Hallahan says he’s confident that once the economy comes out of this tough period and moves into a growth phase we will see more and more CIOs moving into broader board-level operations roles. “It comes back to the personal brand and the quality of relationships with key stakeholders. If the CIO is purely seen as a technologist and not an information manager, they will never move out of that role. But if they are seen as evolving to become a chief process officer, managing the end-to-end process, they will move into the more operational capacity.

“There’s a big opportunity here for Irish CIOs to make a massive impact on the business side of organisations. Top CIOs in Ireland haven’t had to make too many changes since the downturn hit. They are already excellent in terms of project delivery and have fantastic relationships with vendors and outsource partners. They are implementing projects as part of business strategy and are building their personal brands. What comes across strongly in the survey is that Irish CIOs are recognising that while we may be in survival mode, we need to prepare for the upturn and this means developing and training key talent, as well as retaining them.”

By Sorcha Corcoran

Photo: James Hallaghan managing director, Harvey Nash Ireland, pictured with Nessa Butler and Sonya Curley, both of Harvey Nash Ireland.