CIOs Need to Play Jazz, Not Classical

Bill Limond, CIO, City of London | 12/11/2012 | 6 comments

Bill Limond
Depending on who you ask, the CIO role is either dying or about to emerge as an important figure in the c-suite. It is time to set the record straight.

What value does the CIO bring to the organization? And how, after decades of information technology in business, is there still so often a divide between the business and IT? In what ways can the CIO role cease to be an acronym for "Career Is Over" and find itself a place at the top table? Is the era of big-data the driver to enable this change?

A few years ago (2008), Deloitte, together with the Cranfield School of Management in England, published research on realizing the value of the CIO. The content is still very relevant today. The researchers posed the question of whether the role of the CIO would disappear within the next 10 years. That makes a great headline -- one I often use for presentation slides. It's based on the assumption that, as IT standardizes, the role may become superfluous.

More than 50 percent of CIOs themselves feel the role is ill defined, and many CEOs do not understand what makes a successful CIO. Plus, many CEOs still see the role as fairly technical.

According to Deloitte and Cranfield, a CIO will wear many hats across time, depending on the sophistication, maturity, and/or information intensity of the organization. Finally, they will succumb to a fate similar to the dodo.

When IT forms an essential part of the business, the CIO wears the evangelist hat, bringing order to legacy systems and processes and playing an active role in the organization's management. As this order becomes established and the organization moves up the information maturity scale, the CIO puts on the innovator hat, focusing on innovation in new products, services, and business models and further establishing the importance of technology and information in improving and increasing the value of the business. The CIO is then ready to wear the facilitator hat, ensuring business–wide leveraging of capabilities and responsibilities.

Then, according to the report, "once information and technology become an integral part of the organisation, both at an operational and strategic level, and are used to drive innovation and change, then the need for a CIO is expected to diminish." In other words, the CIO is expected to play a part in his own demise.

That's the classical way to look at the CIO. Hopefully, there's another way to look at it.

The French have an expressive word for describing IT: informatique, which rightly emphasizes the information aspect. And this is the fundamental responsibility of the CIO -- the management and governance of the organization's key information and knowledge assets. His/her mission is to facilitate and cost-effectively improve the management and communication of information, the streamlining of business processes, and the sharing of knowledge across the organization. To be fully effective and really add value, the role has to be strategic, requiring business acumen, leadership qualities, and vision, with the CIO acting as the bridge between IT and the business.

Unlike with traditional technology roles, people skills must be a quintessential part of a CIO's toolkit. By nature and experience, a CIO should ideally be a hybrid combining a sound, holistic understanding of technical matters with the business and political skills to influence and deliver. In turn, an organization that allows the CIO to use IT as a strategic driver maximizes value from the role.

Here's what David Chan, director of the Centre for Information Leadership at City University, says a CIO needs to have.

The ability to plan clearly for the future, drive change, and lead innovation while promoting integration and co-operation, at the same time educating and motivating others, as well as constantly focusing on the needs of the internal and external customer, is the job description of a modern CIO.

I would summarize the key aspects of the CIO as leading, building credibility, resisting the temptation to get lost in operational detail, providing business solutions, focusing on strategy, improving the management of business knowledge/information management, being an informed purchaser, providing value for money, and, above all, delivering results. Do any of those things look like something the business ever stops needing, or are these areas where the CIO can continue to have a positive impact?

We are now in the knowledge era -- an era of big-data. Never has the effective management and harnessing of information for competitive advantage been so important to the organization's ability to innovate and grow. This has the potential to tip the balance in favor of the business-minded CIO, who can secure the strategic function of the role and earn recognition and a place alongside other senior management roles: CFO, HR, etc. The future CIO can no longer be the head of an often misunderstood but grudgingly tolerated function of businesses outside the technology industry. Instead, the CIO must be a seamlessly integrated fundamental feature of organizations across industry sectors with an ongoing, vital part to play: informing and driving the vision and strategy.

Warren Bennis once said, "I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don't think that's quite it; it's more like jazz. There is more improvization." CIOs who want to survive will learn to play jazz.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
MDMConsult   CIOs Need to Play Jazz, Not Classical   1/1/2013 2:55:46 AM
Re: Maybe a name change
Today's CIO will continuously seek innovative ways to drive cost savings from their operating budgets.The fact that some CIOs today still report to the CFO or COO accounts for a big part of the explanation. With the rise in digital competition strategy and technology focus in management should not lose such value
stotheco   CIOs Need to Play Jazz, Not Classical   12/16/2012 6:38:35 AM
Re: Maybe a name change
CIO with Information or Innovation, or CKO with the K for knowledge. I would think these are all just titled for a job that is flexible and highly dependent on the nature and type of company. What's in a name, really? It is the job at hand that is more important.
soozyg   CIOs Need to Play Jazz, Not Classical   12/15/2012 3:35:31 PM
Re: Maybe a name change
One of the other articles on here stated that the French use the name/title informatique. I think that gives a more well-rounded description of what "information specialists" do now.
kstaron   CIOs Need to Play Jazz, Not Classical   12/13/2012 7:49:53 PM
Maybe a name change
Perhaps they should trade in the title CIO for CKO, chief knowledge officer, which will make the idea of managing the knowledge and not just the technology of the organization, more clear. In rethinking the role of CIOs, is a different title more appropriate?
DBK   CIOs Need to Play Jazz, Not Classical   12/11/2012 11:16:24 PM
Re: a key - Sell internally and train hard
It is funny to think that not that long ago the traditional IT team were deemed propeller heads and tended to loom in dark shadows and avoid human interaction.  And today the IT team needs to sell it internally harder than they do externally.  And then they need to influence culture so technology is adopted and fully integrated into the work flow.  And then that needs to be reinforced with training, training and more traning.
soozyg   CIOs Need to Play Jazz, Not Classical   12/11/2012 1:32:42 PM
a key
Great article. I really like the Bennis-jazz quote at the end. Seems quite appropriate and not just for CIOs. All leaders must assume a fair amount of "play by ear."

Also, Unlike with traditional technology roles, people skills must be a quintessential part of a CIO's toolkit.

This is one of the keys, actually, I think. Traditional tech staff did not necessarily have the social/people skills--they didn't have to, they were happy behind the scenes writing code. But now, systems have been integrated into the main stream and tech life has gotten more complicated, and if IT staff wants to move up and grow (and make more $)....well, they need people skills.


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