How the CIO fought their way back from the edge of extinction

By fighting a decade-long battle with the combined forces of consumerisation, cloud computing and disruption, CIOs learnt to embrace internal challenge and external change.
Written by Mark Samuels on

Let me take you back to New Year 2010, a time before CIOs had to worry about the impact of blockchain or quantum computing, and when even Apple's iPad was still three months away from release.

It was a time when many CIOs were still focused pretty much entirely on running IT. While there was a sense that IT chiefs should be reaching beyond their own department and engaging with the rest of the business, it was still possible for CIOs to spend more time in the data centre tinkering with legacy platforms than engaging with internal colleagues and external partners.

Cloud computing was still a new concept, over-hyped in the eyes of many CIOs. Companies were dabbling with the cloud but it was mainly used for test and development. CIOs at blue-chip companies weren't thinking about re-platforming their existing applications and data sources. Governance and security issues meant the cloud was still very much a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.

SEE: IT jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Ten years later, of course, the foundations of the enterprise IT environment have changed fundamentally. While pockets of resistance in the form of legacy systems remain, the cloud has moved to the front and centre of IT provision. As this transition has occurred, so the role of the CIO has also changed. 

So, what prompted that transition?

I think there were a few important factors. The gradual growth of the cloud was one. The arrival of the iPad, a factor in the ongoing decline of the PC, was another. Another arrival, not long after the 3 April 2010 release of Apple's first iPad, was another factor: the release of the iPhone 4 in June, which meant consumers could suddenly buy a range of devices that were smaller, better and almost as powerful as the desktop PCs and mobile phones that they had access to at work.

This realisation powered the consumerisation of IT and a change in the role of the technology department from being inward- to outward-facing. This transition didn't happen overnight, of course, consumers might have been buying their own devices but that didn't necessarily mean they could use them in the workplace.

In fact, consumerisation was initially a bit of a dirty word. It was also commonly referred to as shadow IT – a phrase that by its very nature suggests nefarious activity and hints at the desire of workers to use their own devices to find ways around the tight governance established by the IT department.

Research from 2012 suggested about a third (35%) of employees already felt like they needed to work around their company's security policies just to get their jobs done. CIOs responded to shadow IT by trying to batten down the enterprise firewall. Various tactics were used to try and keep order and to keep consumerisation in check.

Some companies simply banned workers from using personal devices for work purposes. Other CIOs introduced various flavours of bring-your-own-device schemes, where workers could use their own devices for work as long as they followed a range of carefully laid-out rules and procedures.

But as the decade played out, consumerisation has had to be gradually accepted and has changed the provision of enterprise IT forever. 

And while the collective strength of employee demand has helped to shape the strength of this force, it's general direction of travel has been guided by two key elements: executive expectations and ubiquitous cloud computing.

Boardroom executives bought iPads, saw the power of the technology and quickly wanted to use their devices for work purposes. While a CIO might be able to say 'no' to a shop-floor worker that wants to look at their email on their smartphone, it's much harder to give a negative answer to the CEO.

My conversations with CIOs not long after the release of the iPad were full of stories of how CEOs wanted a personal dashboard for their devices of key performance indicators, like sales, costs and profits. Once CEOs had access to this information – and could see the value of insight – so other line-of-business managers wanted similar levels of access to big data.

SEE: What is a CIO? Everything you need to know about the Chief Information Officer explained

Some CIOs chose to draw a line in the sand. Their IT departments had a finite amount of resources and couldn't afford to implement dashboards for every person in every department. However, line-of-business employees weren't to be denied – and they had a crucial ally in the form of cloud computing.

If the CIO wouldn't provision the tools they wanted, then workers chose to simply use their own departmental budgets to buy their own applications. Workers started circumnavigating IT departments entirely, establishing direct relationships with cloud vendors and signing up to their own software-licensing deals.

The rise of shadow IT led many experts to speculate that the role of CIO was on borrowed time. After all, who needs a traditional IT director when the rest of the business can buy their own applications and run them on their own devices?

The answer, in the end, turned out to be pretty much everyone. While it's easy to buy an application, it's not so easy to ensure the governance of a service is established, that the date is secure and that the software can be turned off – and the data extracted easily – when the contract is cancelled. It was here that CIOs excelled.

Yet even then, the battle was far from won. Cloud computing powered a new threat to the established order, allowing fleet-of-foot entrepreneurs to move quickly into established markets. Blue-chip organisations had to be prepared to disrupt their existing business models or face the risk of being disrupted themselves.

Digital-savvy executives saw this challenge as an opportunity to offer an alternative way for businesses to deal with the threat of disruption. New executives – such as chief data officer, chief digital officer and chief innovation officer – threatened to invade the boardroom territory that was traditionally held by the CIO.

SEE: What is a chief digital officer? Everything you need to know about the CDO explained

Yet, once again, CIOs held their own. They responded by highlighting their expertise in key areas like governance, strategy and security. Today, organisations that don't formally include CIOs in business-led IT decisions are twice as likely to have multiple security areas exposed than those that consult IT, according to Harvey and KPMG CIO's 2019 IT leadership research.

Such research highlights how it's one thing for a business to think of a new idea and to roll out a new service to customers, but it's quite another thing to ensure this service is safe, secure and sustainable, particularly in a digital age, when the cybersecurity threat has never been greater and the demands in terms of regulatory compliance have never been higher.

An experienced CIO offers the business a reliable, steadying hand when it comes to management of technology-led disruption. So a decade after first leaving the data centre, CIOs find themselves – despite the combined forces of consumerisation, cloud and disruption – in a relatively strong position of power.

The best CIOs are now customer-centric executives, with an expertise in governance and an obsession with creating inherently safe products and services. It's taken a circuitous journey for CIOs to get to that destination, but it's a pretty good place to be.


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