CIO role: How to move from gatekeeper to advisor

The CIO must now serve as an advisor and partner to many different departments. Consider these five steps to position yourself and your team in this key role
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Core Systems vs. Systems of Engagements CIO

The CIO role has been around for more than 40 years, and in that time, it has undergone various shifts to become what it is today. The growth of the internet, the switch to digital, the move to cloud, and the shift to remote and hybrid workforces have all challenged corporate leadership, and especially CIOs, to redefine how they align their technology and teams with emerging tech trends and changes in corporate priorities.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen countless businesses, many of which had been relying on outdated technology with underfunded IT departments, invest in technology at breakneck speed in order to meet the challenges posed by the new work environment. Too often, however, these investments were made directly by departments, with a lack of oversight and control from central IT. It is now common to find staff members managing technology that the IT team may not even be aware of.

When technology decisions and investments happen outside of the CIO’s control, it changes the relationship between the CIO, IT, and the wider business.

When technology decisions and investments happen outside of the CIO’s control, it changes the relationship between the CIO, IT, and the wider business.

Historically, the role of the CIO focused on identifying, implementing, and maintaining business IT systems, with budget set aside to explore and drive innovation within the organization. Moving into the 2000s and 2010s, CIOs were tasked with spearheading digital transformation and the journey to the cloud.

Today’s CIO must work as an advisor and partner to departments across the organization, seeking to understand the needs of the wider business and ensuring that those needs are met in a way that works both for the individual and the wider business aims. However, this distributed approach brings challenges: How, for example, does IT respond to a vulnerability in a piece of software that IT did not know was running?

Many IT leaders tell us that the barrier between shadow IT and business-led IT is becoming more and more blurred and is forcing tradeoffs around risk vs. flexibility. It is IT’s role to not only facilitate business needs but also ensure compliance and security. This creates tension between offering advice vs. imposing governance.

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Evolving into an advisor role

Today, IT managers and leaders are leaned on for strategic counsel more than ever before because of the dependency on technology for sources of revenue and growth. Additionally, the prominence of cloud, SaaS, and hybrid work requires IT leaders and managers to handle more complexity, requiring different skills than previously needed. A good example of this is the need for analytics to help businesses make more data-driven decisions.

For regulated industries such as healthcare and financial services, IT must retain more control as these industries have strict guidelines and restrictions in place to mitigate risk, and privacy/regulatory requirements leave less room for risk. For most enterprises, the CIO role has the flexibility to evolve and serve as a partner to other departments.

As CIO, position yourself as a trusted advisor by following these five steps:

1. Advocate for others

Instead of gatekeeping or monitoring the activity of other teams as an opposing force, CIOs should serve as an advisor on the art of the possible. Partner with departments across the organization to remove barriers in tech and get ahead of problems leveraging knowledge gained from the CIO role.

2. Optimize teams to benefit from data and analytics insights

Data insights can direct and drive business strategy, and all teams across an organization can benefit from them. Bring in data governance and an enterprise data strategy to help link the sources of data together and to tackle quality. Ensure you focus on measurable benefits – ensure that top stakeholders commit to tangible gains and then measure them so you can publicize the benefits.

3. Build a picture/understanding of the technology estate for others

Understanding the efficiency of your tech stack and how it can be optimized is important for understanding the bigger technology picture. Whether you are looking at your assets from a cost management, optimization, or information security perspective, a solid mastery of your estate is a foundational activity that you can then improve. Showback reporting can be a great way of making the costs real for other business units.

4. Integrate engineering

Bringing together your organization’s internal and external technology vendors and suppliers in a secure way is important for managing contracts and understanding the ins and outs of your organization’s mission-critical technology. IT teams tend to have excellent experience managing both contracts and vendor relationships, so leverage that expertise – it’s not just the technical skills that count.

5. Manage cloud coverage

The ability to understand and manage your organization’s cloud usage (both IaaS and SaaS) is key to a successful digital transformation. Cloud usage has taken off but when it comes to compliance and security, the organization will turn to the IT department.

From G&A to revenue-raising?

The pandemic has certainly added new complications and priorities, but career CIOs have seen their roles transform again and again as technology evolves. The breakneck speed and scale of digital transformation over the past 18 months has created an opportunity to make technology an integral part of the business – and to change the role of IT professionals from gatekeepers to enablers who use technology across the organization to help grow the business. This could, in turn, shift IT from being perceived purely as a cost to the business to a revenue-raising function.

[ Want more advice? Watch the on-demand webinar, The future of leading digital innovation: What's next, with Nancy Giordano, plus Red Hat's Margaret Dawson and IDC's Nancy Gohring. ]

Alastair Pooley is the Chief Information Officer at Snow, where he is responsible for global IT strategy and implementation.