In an Era of Hybrid Everything in IT, Enter the Hybrid CIO

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    We have the hybrid cloud, hybrid storage architectures and hybrid hard drives. So it probably should come as a surprise to no one that an argument in favor of having a hybrid CIO would be a particularly strong one.

    One vocal proponent of that argument is Paul Lidsky, president and CEO of Datalink, a cloud services provider in Eden Prairie, Minn. I spoke at length with Lidsky last week, and I asked him to elaborate on the concept of the hybrid CIO. He described the ideal blend this way:

    If you take the traditional role of a CIO running the IT organization, if you think of IT historically as the organization that operates the data center and all of the technology in the company, it has not always participated in the business. If you add to that a CIO who is actively involved in the execution of the growth strategy for a company, you get a hybrid CIO. That means the CIO is involved, in my case, with the CEO in executing the strategy. The CIO is really involved in making sure that the company’s capabilities support a growth strategy, and part of that is operating an IT organization that is more services-oriented. That means being more closely in touch with the needs of the business from a standpoint of future growth. So the traditional responsibilities, along with involvement in execution of a growth strategy, along with becoming more of a services organization—when you blend those three together, you get a hybrid CIO.

    OK, I said to Lidsky, but let’s face it: The CIO discussion has always been around connecting the business and technology sides of a company—it’s always been about aligning IT and the business. So in what sense has the discussion changed? Lidsky’s response? The cloud arrived:

    On the services side, the use of public clouds by individuals within the company has certainly increased over the last few years. You talk to most companies, and they will tell you that individuals or departments have gone straight outside the company to secure cloud-based services, that were once the responsibility of IT through the use of internal resources. So you have what is commonly referred to as ‘shadow IT’—you have individuals and departments making these decisions, and they’re bypassing the CIO and IT. In some cases, data is leaving the company to reside elsewhere—data that, perhaps, should not be residing elsewhere. And people are contracting for application-based services that, perhaps, could be better provided internally.

    So what should the CIO do to fix the shadow IT problem? The answer, Lidsky said, lies in recognizing that the people in the company are your customers, and that you’re losing them:

    You’re losing them to Amazon and Microsoft and Google and and others. So if you want to remain relevant to the business, you’ve got to create a reason for your customers to come back. What that means is thinking about IT as a services organization, rather than a cost center. I think that has changed dramatically in the last few years, as more and more evidence emerges to tell us that there’s a lot of IT being done outside of the CIO’s purview. So I think that’s probably the biggest change. CIOs have always been considered part of the C-suite, if they’re indeed CIOs. But are they really intimately involved in growth strategy? Are they working hand-in-hand with the CEO on how to reshape the way the company operates to achieve its growth strategy? In some cases, they are; in many cases, they are not. In many cases, they’re downstream from those decisions, and they’re responding supportively with changes in the IT environment. I’m talking about the idea of moving them upstream—putting them at the table with the people who formulate strategy, and actually being arm-in-arm at that point. That, along with the concept of becoming a services business, which means building private clouds and hybrid clouds and brokering cloud services, creates a different CIO than the one we’ve seen in the past.

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    Lidsky maintains that the CIO role has become more crucial than ever, and yet the question has been posed as to whether the CIO role is becoming obsolete—the idea being that it’s morphing into a chief analytic officer, or a chief data officer, or even a chief marketing officer role. I asked Lidsky for his thoughts on that, and he said the role of the CIO is morphing, independent of the title that you give the person:

    Whether it’s chief marketing officer or chief security officer, there are a lot of chiefs. I think the CIO can, and should, sit at a level in the company where he or she can touch all those functions. I’ve heard many stories over the years from our customers about the fact that IT was the last to hear about a new offering, which caused IT to have to scramble to get ready to support the offering. There are thousands of those stories. What I’m talking about is the CIO being in front of those decisions, not behind them. Whether that causes a morphing of the title, I can’t say. But it certainly causes a morphing of their responsibilities. So I think ‘chief information officer’ is a title that denotes the most senior person within IT, but today’s CIO is probably a blend of traditional IT, security, go-to-market, a lot of different things.

    At the same time, Lidsky said, the CIO is the person he can work with to identify ways to run the company and to reach out to customers more efficiently:

    This is working hand-in-hand at the point where we’re making those decisions. That’s the biggest change that I see—many companies do this, but many do not. The other part of that is that building a services organization out of a cost center is a tremendous metamorphosis of IT. It’s extremely crucial to the future of the CIO and of IT—and, believe it or not, it’s crucial to the good operation and governance of companies. But it requires a different mindset, and it requires a different approach to services and technology. So I think there’s a lot going on that you could put under the heading of the morphing or evolution of IT and the role of the CIO. I don’t think it’s any one thing, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the title. I think it’s really the functionality of the role and the department.

    Lidsky also shared some valuable insights regarding the role of the CIO within the corporate hierarchy, and discussed how he works with his own CIO at Datalink. I’ll cover those topics in a forthcoming post.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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