5 ways CIOs can stay in demand

Necessity of role up for debate, but most agree that IT heads need to gain new skills and make adjustments to stay relevant and sought-after in the market, industry advisors say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

While market watchers are divided on the necessity of the CIO role today, they agree that executives responsible for their organization's IT strategy have to be aware of new obligations and attributes to help the company achieve its business goals--and keep themselves out of the chopping block.

Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of U.S.-based analyst firm Nucleus Research, said many CIOs today are at a "crossroad", having lost relevance vis-à-vis their position and reporting to the CFO instead of the CEO or the board.

"CIOs gained power and influence in the late 1990s because there was a lack of general understanding about technology and fear of Y2K issues. Many lost credibility over Y2K, and others fought against innovations such as cloud computing because they saw it a threat to their control, rather than a way to enable their teams," Wettemann said in an e-mail.

If CIOs want to stay in demand--and retain their jobs--they need to be more proactive in identifying opportunities for the business and "reclaim their roles as thought leaders on technology, to regain their role on the management table", she said.

Others argued that the CIO role remains relevant today, where those holding this position must attain new skills in order to fulfill their responsibilities and duties, one of which is to enable cloud computing.

Lionel Lim, Asia-Pacific president of CA Technologies, cited the company's CIO study "The Future Role of the CIO" released in October, which found that 70 percent of respondents--who were themselves CIOs--noted that IT heads needed to develop new skills to remain effective in the future.

"The role of the CIO is not diminishing, in fact, the CIO role is indispensable," Lim told ZDNet Asia. "The days of merely aligning with and supporting the business are behind us. Rather, the role has evolved as the business has transformed."

Ho Wah Lee, head of advisory for KPMG in Singapore, highlighted that the fundamental role and responsibility of the CIO have not changed. That is, to deliver reliable IT services to help business managers meet their business goals.

Instead, Ho explained, it is the environment in which CIOs operate that has seen changes, such as the influx of Generation Y workers, social media and cloud computing. This calls for certain adjustments CIOs need to make in order to remain in demand, he said.

These industry observers offer five tips that can help these IT heads stay relevant.

1. Have cloud confidence.
While few CIOs today are still threatened by cloud computing, few also have truly acquired the ability to articulate the financial value and flexibility that cloud can deliver to the business, Wettemann noted.

"Smart CIOs are recognizing that the cloud can be a great way for them to [prove their worth], by clearly understanding and communicating how their cloud and other IT strategies can increase flexibility and the ability for the business to change as their environments and competitors change."

Ho noted that CIOs who understand the real use and purpose cloud are currently few and far between.

Cloud computing has given rise to a "wild imagination" of what can be implemented with cloud, but in reality, not many tech leaders realize or understand that successful implementation of the cloud is actually largely dependent on the simplification of business processes and a standard application system, he explained.

2. Demonstrate business clout.
Since technology is an enabler of business, alignment of IT to business is hence a key objective for CIOs, Ho reasoned.

The CIOs of today must understand the business and how IT can be used to achieve the organization's business goals, and not the other way round, he said.

Wettemann concurred, noting that CIOs would want to sharpen their skills outside of IT to display how their experience and knowledge can make their companies a leader by leveraging technology not just for day-to-day operations, but to gain competitive advantage.

Similarly, CA's Lim said it is not enough for modern CIOs to be "just technologists". They also need to have the necessary business acumen, commercial ability and people management expertise if they want to add considerable strategic value to the business and its shareholders, he added.

"Modern CIOs have to be partners in the boardroom, working in tandem with the rest of the C-suites," he said.

3. Be innovative and current.
The way IT serves business needs is also imperative. Lim noted that CIOs today cannot focus merely on automating business processes, they also have to be strategic leaders who are imperative--and influential--in reshaping business processes and strategies. And the only way to do that is to stay current with new and emerging technologies that not only affect their role or position, but also impact their organization, and figure out innovative ways to harness that opportunity, he said.

Keeping updated with industry developments is not only necessary from the technology perspective, CIOs also need to understand the legal ramifications as a result of new technologies, Lim said. He cited findings from the CA study which found that 55 percent of respondents in the Asia-Pacific region named regulatory and compliance issues, such as privacy and data protection laws, as key issues IT heads are expected to be familiar with.

Wettemann also advised IT leaders to be more hands-on: "Don't be afraid of cutting edge."

She noted that piloting projects with emerging technologies such as mobile apps, big data and social media can help CIOs maintain their relevance, and stay ahead of the curve whilst delivering competitive advantage for the business.

Ho added that by embracing innovative ideas and emerging technologies, CIOs can also better meet the demands and expectations of younger business executives--a group whose growing number in today's workforce represents a "generation-shift".

4. Ability of intergenerational management.
"People skills is vital to today's CIO," said Lim, who highlighted that workplaces nowadays are intergenerational, sometimes, housing three generations--baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y--under the same roof.

This underscores the need for CIOs to figure out ways to facilitate a smooth transition of knowledge transfer between older generations and younger cohorts, he said, while describing the latter as "Generation C"--people who grew up in a connected and collaborative environment and whose use of technology is completely different from that of their predecessors.

5. Exhibit vigilance.
Security defenses in organizations are critical, and with prolific hacking attacks on corporations of late, CIOs must be vigilant against internal as well as external security threats that evolve in unique ways from week to week, Lim said.

While keeping up with every single threat is humanly impossible, identifying the technology to assist is not, he noted.

CIOs should not just focus on technicalities such as comprehensive policy-driven access and identity-management tools which offer multiple layers of protection, they should also be working on maintaining and implementing security awareness, education and practices among staff in the company, he recommended.

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