Forum: IT in the boardroom, CIOs not in the news

Why CIOs struggle to get their voices heard in the boardroom

When young IT graduates leave university, bright-eyed and ready to launch their careers, does it occur to them to set their sights on a company directorship?

That is the question Robin Johansen, Beca Group CIO posed to a group of senior CIOs at the presentation of the MIS 100 — the top 100 biggest users in IT. He told them that young accounting and legal professionals are likely to aim for a place on a company board, but it’s doubtful IT graduates even have it on their radar.

Johansen had previously checked with the Institute of Board Directors, an organisation with around 5500 members, on how many directors had an IT background and was told about 10 percent. He then asked those present at the MIS 100 event how many were board directors. Only five people raised their hands.

In his presentation Johansen cited a 2010 Biennial IBM Global CEO study of 1500 CEOs, which showed that in Australia and New Zealand 84 percent of CEOs expect the level of complexity in their business to grow, but only 39 percent believe they know how to deal with this successfully. Johansen says dealing with constant change, and making sense of data are the very skills that leading CIOs possess, and yet their views are not being heard often enough at board level.

He pointed to an IDC quick poll of 143 respondents in 2009 that showed up to 40 percent of CIOs are reporting to positions other than the CEO. And, then he posed the following questions:

• Have we become marginalised with a focus on operational rather than strategic and innovation initiatives?

• Is the voice of IT being ‘filtered’ via the CFO and the CEO?

• Is Board composition still ‘tilted’ towards financial and legal skills?

• Is corporate governance for IT broken or inappropriate in 2011?

• Since IT professionals have always thrived in a rapidly changing environment, why are we under-represented in meeting the business challenges of ongoing change?

Following the presentation I put some of these questions to New Zealand Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews. He says that IT governance is a major focus of the organisation this year, and they have launched a number of courses in this area. He says demand for the courses is high, but will it improve the representation of IT at board level?

While the NZCS is right to see this as an important area to focus on, my challenge to leading CIOs is to get their voices heard outside of the usual forums and to advocate publicly for a bigger role for IT in decision-making.

How often do we hear a CIO take a stand on major issues facing not just the ICT industry, but the role that ICT can play in improving the New Zealand economy?

What do CIOs think about the government Infrastructure as a Service RFP — which one commentator says could see 70 percent of public sector information stored in the cloud?

And, if analysts are right in predicting a massive shift to cloud computing, where are the CIOs publicly debating the privacy commissioner’s recent hints that legislation on the use of data may be required?

Maybe CIOs are content to see the public debate on ICT issues being carried out by industry groups such as NZCS on copyright and TUANZ on telecommunications. But if you leave it to others to speak on your behalf, you can’t complain about invisibility.

Of course speaking out involves risk, and it opens you up to public criticism. Last month, when we ran a Q and A with Rod Drury online, in the comments space ‘Glenn’ wrote: “Why does Drury get so much airtime in Computerworld?”

Drury gets “airtime” because he is one of the few IT practitioners willing to speak up and debate the issues publicly.

It is probably true that IT graduates don’t see a board directorship in a major New Zealand company as an achievable goal. But with the lack of a public voice, CIOs may find that the graduates with a ‘go-getting’ attitude don’t even look to a career in a large company or public sector organisation, much less hope to rise to a directorship.

Not when the likes of Drury and the other IT start-ups we regularly profile in Computerworld aren’t afraid to publicly speak out and, by doing so, raise their companies’ profiles to attract the very best IT graduates – the ones who want to make a difference.

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