CIOs need to get in the boss's ear

CIOs unsure of their place in the world would have come away with useful clues from a couple of presentations in Auckland last week.

CIOs unsure of their place in the world would have come away with useful clues from a couple of presentations in Auckland last week. A CIO turned CEO, Gen-i’s Garth Biggs, provided a guide to what the boss wants from the information chief. IDC analyst Peter Hind, meanwhile, gave an interpretation of technology trends of the past year and a glimpse at what’s just over the horizon. Both were speaking at CIO magazine's annual conference.

Biggs, who has headed systems integrator Gen-i for a couple of years, spent a dozen years before that as CIO at five different organisations, most recently Air New Zealand. He was therefore able to comment with at least as much authority on what CIOs appreciate in CEOs as the other way around. (He also succeeded in delivering his views without any apparent IT vendor taint.) His own experiences were interspersed with research from various sources.

But the personal observations were perhaps the more penetrating. He noted that CIO longevity (the letters have been taken to mean “career is over”) is improving as chief executives become more IT-aware and CIOs more business-savvy. As boss, his preference for CIO background is someone who has worked in software development. His belief – which all CEOs would do well to hold to – is that IT people shouldn’t be looked to for commercial success; it’s down to the business to do that, with IT providing the operational support.

And maybe his single most valuable tip: as Air New Zealand CIO he didn’t sponsor a single IT project, leaving that to the people reporting to him, presumably to avoid unpleasant consequences of failure -- “it’s a political game”, summing up his modus operandi. In fact (if that word can be applied to research findings), he can probably claim endorsement of that approach by McKinsey, which says 90% of CEOs want business units to be strongly involved with IT projects through their lifecycle. What they really don’t want are surprises.

Reverting to his CIO hat, the best kind of CEO to work for, Biggs says – and who would argue with him – is the IT believer. “It goes without saying that I consider myself a believer, although my CIO would probably say I was lapsed.”

IDC’s Hind reinforces another of Biggs’ research-based points: that above all, IT is a contributor to operations rather than a driver of business change. “IT isn’t top of mind as it once was and that makes our job much harder.” That observation is based on Hind’s Forecast for Management survey, which for the past six years has tracked IT trends in organisations in Australia and New Zealand. However, he also notes that that bland view of IT dips slightly (from 78% of respondents to 72%) between his 2002 and 2003 surveys; and there’s a corresponding increase in the number of CIOs who report the boss views IT as a source of competitive advantage (still only 17% of respondents).

What should you conclude? That to improve your status you need to get in the CEO’s ear and convince her that, in Biggs’ words, CIOs have an overview of the business that’s second to none.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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