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How can CIOs stay relevant?

Paul Rubens | March 9, 2016
In a world of ‘shadow IT’ services, CIOs need to adapt if want to avoid being relegated to little more than technicians.

What's the point of a CIO?

It's a brutally frank question. But in a world where business units can sign up for "shadow IT" services in minutes to get anything from CRM to analytics to data storage to email, do organizations really need a C-level technology expert anymore?

The good news for CIOs is that the answer is probably "yes." The bad news is that they are going to have to change and adapt if they want to have any chance of staying relevant.

That's certainly the view of Jim Cole, a senior vice president at Hitachi Consulting.  "The role of the CIO remains relevant to the extent they are strategists first, technologists second," he warns.

Instead of being the chief architect of IT systems, CIOs must concentrate on being "strategic enablers" for their businesses by allowing them to "enter and exit markets with the utmost in flexibility and agility regardless of where the IT services are provided," he adds.

CIOs who fail to do that risk finding their roles relegated to ones which answer to another C-level executive, while someone else – perhaps a Chief Digital Officer – steps in to handle the more business-critical strategic initiatives.

Embrace the chaos

One key characteristic that CIOs need to develop is the willingness to allow business units to choose and use any (or almost any) applications that they feel they need to get their jobs done, Cole says. This includes the type of software as a service (SaaS) offerings that previously were acquired without the knowledge or permission of the IT department,

 "Today’s CIOs remain relevant by engaging directly in the consumption of shadow IT within their businesses," he says.  To do this CIOs need to make sure they understand why particular shadow IT services are in demand, and what can be done to make sure that they can be used as effectively as possible.

"The alternative is to develop draconian, isolationist policies which are often cloaked in the guise of "security" and "data protection" but in reality are often attempts to falsely preserve command and control," he adds.

The problem for career-minded CIOs is that traditionally the role has been one of Plan-Build-Run, and the capability to execute successful projects of this kind has been the hallmark of a successful CIO, says Abner Germanow, a senior director at New Relic, a Calif.-based analytics company.

Executing Plan-Procure-Manage projects – subscribing to SaaS offerings, in other words – has not typically been something for CIOs to show off about or to use as justification for an enhanced compensation package. "Not many CIOs have made their careers by subscribing to services," he points out.


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