To Be Successful, CIOs Must Step Up

Ann All
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Seven Leadership Skills CIOs Need to Drive Results

CIOs must have the right leadership skills in place to deliver on today's heightened expectations.

One of my favorite subjects has always been the need for IT to work more closely with the business. That's still the case, but it may be even more essential for IT to be in tune with external markets. Showing knowledge of and interest in external markets will improve IT's standing with business leaders and make it easier to collaborate with them.


Despite this, many CIOs remain focused on internal operations. According to the 2011 Harvey Nash CIO Survey, CIOs were pretty evenly divided (52 percent vs. 48 percent) between those who felt their IT organizations were proactive in understanding and adapting to business needs and those who said their teams were reactive to business requests. Although 52 percent of respondents said they help shape business goals, 66 percent said IT is focused on internal customers rather than outside consumers, suppliers or partners, according to a CIO.com UK story about the survey.


These results remind me of a Diamond Management & Technology Consultants survey from last year in which three-quarters of business and technology leaders said the CIO's primary innovation role was to improve business processes (50 percent) or IT processes (25 percent). Far fewer respondents said the CIO's role was to create innovation designed to improve customer service, reach new customers or create new products/services.


A shift in which CIOs are being asked to provide more innovation is the overarching theme of the 2011 Harvey Nash CIO Survey. Yet some CIOs may be confused by this idea. When IT Business Edge's Susan Hall interviewed Harvey Nash President and CEO Bob Miano about the survey, he told her:

Last year, I was in San Francisco for our event. We had about 60 CIOs in a room and we talked about innovation. It wasn't a part of the survey last year, but it came up as a topic Just listening to how they thought they were being innovative was very interesting. A significant number talked about improving processes and procedures, improving reliability and availability of their operations. That's really utility. So there's a big debate about the word "innovation" and what that means. There's been a lot written about this in the past year. Innovation really has to do with how you use technology to generate comparative advantage, put new products out in the marketplace, that kind of thing. It's not really about keeping the lights on, it's about moving the ball forward in new and different areas. This year, I think there's much more awareness of that.

His statements mesh with those of Krishnan Chatterjee, chief marketing officer for offshore IT and software development company HCL, who earlier this year spoke to Susan about "the reincarnate CIO," a technology leader comfortable with driving business growth. He told her the three characteristics of this kind of CIO are:

  • A strong understanding of the currency of business and the end customer (emphasis mine)
  • The ability to leverage IT for business costs as opposed to treating it from an IT cost perspective
  • The ability to harness new technologies to create competitive advantage for the business


Chatterjee offered some examples of HCL clients that have successfully employed IT to drive business growth, including an IT organization that created an iPad application for sales of home furnishings. The app allows sales personnel to visit customers, pull up their inventory via the iPad, take a photo of a room and show customers how different furnishings would look placed in different positions in the room.


A silicon.com article mentions similar examples of technology executives proactively creating solutions that generate revenue, including some mobile betting applications created by Tony McAlister, CTO of Betfair, and his IT team.


Interestingly, the article also notes there is no one-size-fits-all description for CIOs and makes the case that companies are increasingly tailoring the job to suit their individual needs. It lists CTO, COO, head of IT, head of technology, director general of IT, chief officer of IT, business process director, IS director, director of technology strategy and director of innovation, as "just a few of the titles attached to today's CIO."


McAlister calls the CIO "an incredibly vital cog in the machine" and predicts the role will become an even more important part of product development and other customer-facing areas of business - if CIOs proactively look for opportunities to grow the business. Discussing the betting applications his team created, McAlister said:

We were first out with iPhone and Android and iPad apps.That all came out of my shop. Nobody asked me to build those things ... I asked my team to build some applications to see what we could do with betting on these different types of platforms -- and now we've got a business that's growing incredibly fast on the mobile side.

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