While the CFO has the liberty to look into matters only concerning finance and the CMO can concentrate on marketing, the CIO has, of late, lost the liberty to focus on matters concerning only IT. The lines have blurred and walls that existed before have been brought down. The steady progress to digital in all business organisations and even government is adding to this increasing complexity. While this can bog down CIOs with undue pressure and responsibilities, it is also a good time for CIOs to rise and really prove they are worth their salt in the organisation – not just as managers handling back-end, mundane IT functions but as true leaders who make a significant contribution to how the business works and flourishes.
Cost cutting is not our sole responsibility, say CIOs
Are CIOs themselves to blame for the ‘cost-cutter’ tag getting attached to their role? Vijay Sethi, CIO and Vice President IS & HR, Hero MotoCorp Limited firmly believes so. Nagaraj G N, Global Head – Service Delivery – 3i Infotech explains the deeper reason behind this. “Enterprises in India have been through a tough time. Policy paralysis, high inflation and general lack of confidence in the political leadership and the bleak investment climate have forced many enterprises to critically look at the bottom line. In a positively charged environment, enterprises will look to making fresh investments on solutions that create a mean and lean outfit. With too much pessimism in the environment, enterprises looked at curtailing all expenditure with some enterprises resorting to cutting flesh. In such a scenario all cost centres came under severe scrutiny and inspection,” he says.
He points out that most enterprises are technology supported and not technology enabled and there is very little deep understanding of enterprise technology and how it can shape business. In such a paradigm, IT teams become yet another cost centre and the CIO’s only claim to fame would be around cost cutting initiatives and negotiation skills with vendors.
It is entirely up to CIOs themselves to take advantage of external factors such as change in political leadership and to capitalise on their cost saving initiatives and wrap it in a layer of innovation to increase the scale of business through technology-driven and technology-enabled initiatives. “CIOs have the opportunity, the potential and the capability of execution to change market dynamics by paving the way for new age products and solutions , especially in the mobility, cloud and social domains, some of which will find definition in the need expressed by the CIOs. This will also be an exciting time for start-up ventures who will take the lead and the risk in creating these products and solutions,” predicts Nagaraj.
Clearly, the CIO mindset has transformed to a more business case led approach with a focus on adding innovation to line of business. And talking about an important step towards achieving that, Sanchit Vir Gogia, Chief Analyst and CEO, Greyhound Research, says, “It is absolutely important that a CIO aligns his goals and works in sync with the CFO and the CMO to add to the line of business.”
A small step to better communication goes a long way
This need for increased communication between CIOs and other C-level peers can work in the CIO’s favour if he or she initiates this exchange of ideas and lets the business know what they can bring to the table. Satish Pendse, President of Highbar Technologies, explains, “Interactions with other C-level executives should never be perceived as ‘problems.’ Rather, they are great opportunities to drive the IT agenda across the organisation. IT initiatives are transformational in nature. Every such initiative needs to be marketed internally and needs to be embraced by multiple stakeholders, in addition to IT. Interactions with CMO, CFO and CEO are opportunities from this perspective. Once these executives buy into any IT initiatives, chances of success increase manifold.”
Other than effective communication, CIOs need to understand that in the end IT projects are not just their own but are done for other functions and the organisation as a whole. “It is important that other C-suite managers also own the initiative. For this to happen, the CIO has to be a trusted partner for them and the fact is trust needs to be earned – by delivery, by conduct and by knowledge,” Sethi explains.
Nagaraj brings up an aspect that is often left unsaid. He says that there is a factor of competition amongst all CXOs and tackling this needs a different kind of management strategy and manoeuvring skills. Having said that, he clarifies, “The problem, challenge and opportunity for each CXO are the same. Some believe that the world of technology being niche, the CIO is at a disadvantage as other CXOs do not appreciate technology while they do grasp the strategy and the intent aligned to common goals and objectives. I feel that is an invalid or rather irrational belief. The world of finance, investment and operations sometimes has those niche areas that are distant from the grasp of CXOs from different fields. I believe all CXOs operate on a level playing field with respect to opportunities and challenges. The individual just needs to prove his mettle on strategy, execution, foresight and on the ability to sell.”
Manish Bahl, Vice President & Country Manager India for Forrester Research suggests some very practical tips for CIOs who are wondering how to take that first step towards effective communication. “CIOs need to reach across the walls of the IT organisation to engage with the CMO and other business leaders. As a first step, the CIO should meet business leaders weekly to devise and discuss a technology strategy for the business. Come to these discussions wearing your business hat to build a connection with business leaders. For instance, talk about delivering a consistent customer experience to drive business growth for your firm – a process that technology may only enter at a later stage,” he says.
“If CIOs don’t do that, business will find its own ways to leverage technology leaving CIOs behind. For instance, Indian CMOs are building their own technology agenda to serve digitally empowered customers and increasing their tech budget,” he warns.
New and emerging threats to the CIO role
Adding to Bahl’s views on CIOs being left behind, Gogia feels that the threats to the CIO role are increasing, and hence the need for evolution of CIOs themselves and their teams. “In today’s times, CIOs cannot be mere providers of storage, apps or other pieces in IT, but instead they need to think and act like internal services organisations that are measured on outcomes by LoB heads. In essence, the CIO and his team must move away from the simple act of technology provision to that of services orchestration. The CIO needs to act as an internal service provider rather than being one of the ‘server hugging’ roles. He must enable his team to implement technology that supports newer initiatives on Cloud, Big Data, Mobility and social technologies. A CIO must understand how a CFO and a CMO functions. His knowledge about the working of the two roles needs to be foolproof to help in maximising profits,” says Gogia.
The fact is that quantum of IT investments has gone up. Explaining a very realistic situation, Pendse says that in a few businesses it is even as high as 6-10 percent of turnover, thus attracting the CFO and making him consider personally monitoring the same by taking IT investment matters in his or her own hands. With the dawn of the age of the customer, CMOs expect IT-driven innovation in acquiring and retaining customers, building brands, etc. They expect utmost agility from IT people and expect them to be aware of business challenges to such an extent that the IT team should be able to give the CMO proactive and agile support in beating marketing challenges in the marketplace.
“If CIOs address these changed expectations with the same old mindset, then it will no longer be tolerated by CMOs, CEOs, CFOs and the like. Bureaucracy expected by the IT functions in general may no longer go well with the C-level executives now. An overemphasis on security / policies / processes, coming in the way of IT-driven business innovations may now sound like a draconian thought to business leaders. The ‘overly safe’ approach of some CIOs may no longer go well with the business; they expect quick decisions, readiness to experiment and a fail-fast approach,” says Pendse.
The way IT works also needs to the re-thought. “Turnaround time expected is in terms of days and weeks; no longer months and years. Doing everything in-house may now be seen as non-agile. The way to address the said job threat is to adopt and drive these and such other cultural changes proactively and immediately. The comfort with a CIO in the minds of business leaders should be so high that the thought of entering into his role fully or partially should not even cross their minds,” advises Pendse.
Sethi shares some golden rules for CIOs to live by to ward of any threat from other C-level peers poaching into the CIO role. He says, “Help improve compliance levels in all aspects of working of the organisation, help improve environment and help the organisation in discharging its social obligations and build an IT organisation that is contemporary in its skills, approach, thinking and actions and is agile and has policies and processes that are customer-centric.”
Are you getting through to the big guy?
All said and done, in the end, it’s the CEO’s blessings that CIOs needs to have on their side for all IT initiatives, big and small. Both Sethi and Nagaraj feel that with mobility, social and cloud computing becoming the order of the day, CEOs are quite tech savvy. But unfortunately, says Nagaraj, CEOs do not understand beyond the cosmetic layer of the technology usage value proposition. They are aware of the risks in adoption of these technologies. So, if the CIO can roll out business initiatives enabled by the cloud, riding the wave of mobility and integrating into the social fabric of their customers and leverage it to gain a competitive edge in the market place, it can really help the CEO view the CIO as a very able member at the round table.
Pendse shares some great advice for building up the CIO-CEO rapport. “CIO needs to be seen more with the CEO and other C-level executives. Ideally he should be seen outside of his own department for more than 50 percent of the time. He and his key members should get a full understanding of the business domain, its challenges and opportunities, key priorities, the five-year business strategic plan, competitive scenario, etc. He should make himself a part of strategic business discussions with C-level executives. At the same time the CIO should keep educating the CEO and other C-level executives in various aspects of IT and futuristic IT developments. He should become the conduit for the CEO to get to know current and future IT, especially all that is relevant to the business of the organisation.”
There is no doubt that the CIO’s role has undergone a sea change in the recent past and is susceptible to even more transformation with disruptions affecting the technology domain at such a mind boggling pace. But, the onus lies entirely on the CIO to mould and adapt on demand and emerge as a true leader, guiding the organisation to newer heights.