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Why Information Technology directors need a digital makeover

By BY SOSPETER OPONDO | November 11th 2013

KENYA: Information technology and strategy are now so much a part of each other that senior managers are — or should be — information officers. If so, has the position of Chief Information Officer (or IT director) outlived its usefulness?

Back in the prehistoric days of information technology — about 30 years ago — many companies opted to deal with the frighteningly complicated matter of “machines and men” by creating the position of CIO. This newfangled manager, companies hoped, would protect them from and prepare them for the coming technology revolution.

Today, IT has infiltrated every aspect of business, from plotting strategies to the logistics of frontline operations.

And with this, every employee is forced to be an information officer of some sort. So the question is: are CIOs obsolete?

The CIO position, in general, has long been maligned. But I think that’s because most people do not understand its true potential. Anything that isn’t well understood is often rejected.

But let’s face it, the misunderstanding is, to a great extent, justified. The title still means so many things to so many different companies.

Some CIOs, for example, are simply department managers who ensure all PCs can be turned on and that the processors work. Others are charged with managing a company’s website development and its maintenance — either in relative isolation or in tandem with the marketing  department.

In some other institutions, the title reflects an evolving senior management role that fits a person who is active in strategy development and is respected for his or her input on organisational structure and culture.

The way a business is defined and is expected to evolve is the way the CIO position is headed overall. More and more, businesses are relying on technology to be competitive. The CIO is the natural person to drive that process. Therefore, the old definitions of the role — those that are limited in scope — will become obsolete.

Now, the CIO must have broad impact, a call that conjures up the image of a CEO for many. But I do not believe that the two positions are equal — though they share a number of characteristics.

Most unit heads need to have a very focused perspective, CIOs included. But additionally, they must be able to consider the business as a whole, as a CEO does.

Meanwhile, CEOs increasingly have to be technologists. In fact, I suspect that in the future more CEOs will have done some sort of rotation through a high-level tech job like CIO before they become top managers.

The CEO should take the strategic lead, while the CIO should participate in strategy issues but also handle implementation issues on a more detailed level.

If I were advising CIOs — both hopeful and sitting executive alike — I would say, do everything possible to ensure your company embraces technology. Be certain that all senior managers use current, standard corporate technology on a daily basis — like the Statistical Programme for Social Science (SPSS). This sounds ridiculous, I know, but a surprising number of senior executives don’t even use their own e-mail accounts.

Finally, instead of wondering if they will be invited to sit at the table where strategy is decided on, CIOs should ask themselves if they are adding the kind of value that would influence strategy discussions. Do they have a broad understanding of the business? Do they know how the different components work together? Have they built relationships with other unit heads?

Today’s CIO is and should be a technology executive who provides direction and counsel to other senior managers. 

Will the role become obsolete? Not if major changes in business and technology continue at the same pace, or increase.

The writer is a business development consultant.

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