With the evolution of technology and a changing marketplace, the chief information officer in government contracting has transformed from a traditional tech-centric, hands-on-only manager into a boardroom-friendly, IT savvy executive.
Thirty years have passed since the phrase “chief information officer” was first used in IT. The occasion: the 1980 Information Management Exposition and Conference with speaker William Synott, then-senior vice president of the First National Bank of Boston.
“The manager of information systems in the 1980s has to be Superman—retaining his technology cape, but doffing the technical suit for a business suit and becoming one of the chief executives of the firm,” Synott said. “The job of chief information officer—equal in rank to chief executive and chief financial officers—does not exist today, but the CIO will identify, collect and manage information as a resource, set corporate information policy and affect all office and distributed systems.”
At the time of Synott’s speech, very few understood the need for executives to be both excellent technology leaders and fully functional business executives. Fast-forward to the following decade: a changing business environment—with the combination of an explosion of C-level titles—gives birth to a new breed, comfortable in IT and business procedures.
The creature Synott had described was finally alive, christened with an array of titles: director of IT, information systems director, senior manager of IT systems development, IT leader, vice president of technology, vice president of IS, director of computing infrastructure, corporate director of IT, senior IS operations manager and network services manager.
The digital-era CIO emerged as one of the key executives in a corporation, not only charged with technology-oriented duties but armed with business savvy and in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of an enterprise. Beginning in the early 1990s, with the expansion of e-commerce and e-business, CIO were faced with additional challenges. Their role had turned to a much more complex one from managing some odd servers or providing occasional desktop support.
As time passed, the CIO’s role went from purely hands-on to more business oriented. When Vivek Kundra was appointed the first-ever federal CIO in 2009, he was charged with not only directing the policy and strategic planning of federal IT investments and overseeing federal technology spending but also establishing and managing enterprise architecture to ensure system interoperability and information sharing.
With the many expectations and demands today’s CIO has to juggle, there is no simple or single job description of the CIO role. Bob Fecteau, chief information officer of the intelligence and security sector at BAE Systems, said the most important duty of a CIO is creating a clarity and focus of purpose for the IT investments of an organization that links to the business strategy.
To ensure IT is strategically aligned to the business requirements, a CIO has to be fully tuned into both the business focus and the IT support focus. To achieve that, the CIO must be able to build rapport with the business leaders, effectively communicate those requirements to the IT function and track all aspects of the support provided to the business, he said.
“Another critical capability a CIO must have is as a problem solver/business process analyst,” Fecteau said. “In order to improve the use of IT within a business, it requires a focus on the challenges the employees are having maximizing the use of technology.”
From a broader outlook, the CIO is responsible for ensuring the company’s IT investments are aligned with its strategic business objectives. However, stressing the leadership role within an organization, Fecteau said CIOs serve as senior advisers to the business leadership in business process improvement that can be enabled through the application of technology.
“In a true enabled role, the CIO works directly with the chief operations officer and chief financial officer in ensuring the business operates optimally,” he said.
The CIO’s role also can vary based on how the organization employs him or her, he added. In some organizations, CIOs are tactical and focus on everyday operations; in others, they are the transformational engine for the company. Other companies may employ them to become strategic partners with the executive team, aiding the business in establishing its strategic goals moving forward.
“In reality, most CIO operations move between these three levels of engagement constantly in the execution of their duties,” Fecteau said.
Because the conventional CIO role has moved away from the technical involvement into the strategic business operations alignment arena, some companies are bringing in a chief technology officer to help the CIO. The CTO predominantly focuses on finding the latest and greatest technical solution to problems, with their energy zoned in on learning about new capabilities and recommending them for adoption by the business.
Brian Neely, CIO and CTO at AMERICAN SYSTEMS, defined the CTO’s role as being “an internal evangelist for technology, researching and sharing technology across the corporation, as well as an external promoter for technology, supporting and promoting new and existing business initiatives.”
“Comprehension of the long-term and short-term corporate business goals is key in order to be able to provide perspective on how technology might influence and help achieve those goals,” he said. “The CTO must be aware of both the elements of technology and the processes that can be affected by technology.”
Fecteau explained further:
“For a CTO to be really effective, their recommendations are frequently done without regard to cost,” he said.
CIOs focus on managing specified business needs and managing the entire life cycle of delivery of IT services that satisfy the defined business needs, Fecteau said. They are also responsible for organizing, prioritizing and making sure the business priorities set for IT projects supporting the business are delivered and executed with the greatest efficiency possible. CTOs do not have this requirement. CIOs have the responsibility of establishing standards, governance and policy—tasks seldom found in the role of a CTO.
So what makes a good CIO? Much more than being technically adept, clearly.
“The best CIOs establish clear visions of where the organization can and needs to go when investing in technology all focused on a future road map,” Fecteau said. “I like to say that the key role of the CIO is to tie people to processes enabled by great technology. Painting this picture in a consumable, actionable and focused way is what the real challenge of the CIO role is today. Those that can do this garner the trust of all that work for and around them and that enables them to be most effective.”
Neely stressed the leadership aspect, highlighting how CIOs are effective communicators and positive leaders who are encouraging, inspirational, creative and persuasive.
“Leaders serve as role models, great leaders produce other great leaders,” he said. “Authentic leadership is not a plan or a singular event; it is a journey.”
A CIO also must be well versed in the business he or she works in and fully understand the companies’ culture, strategy, business model and market position.
Neely said understanding that success is never a given, and sometimes not even an option, as there are too many existing external independent variables that do not always line up.
“The best CIOs learn early on to ‘fail fast and fail cheap!’” he said.
One aspect to consider when discussing the nature of the CIO role is the environment in which he or she operates. Working in government, a CIO receives a budgeted amount of funding to execute programs that have already been planned. Public-sector CIOs additionally have a relatively fixed cost element that does not change much during the year, and their ability to change it is reduced. They also have a high proportion of their budgets encumbered by fixed costs. For government CIOs, there is a lot more oversight and many rules to follow, Fecteau explained.
On the other hand, CIOs in the private sector generally have a different approach to budgeting. Their focus is managing costs that roll back to the business against the profit line. In this sense, an industry CIO may have more knobs to turn to affect the costs to a business in a given year, Fecteau said.
“They can reduce workforce easier, they can defer purchases and they can also execute capital expenditures with depreciation that helps them afford things,” he said. “In the government, the money is annually allocated and spent most of the time and tracked annually. In business, quarterly reporting drives a different financial behavior as the business uses those reporting points to correct business performance requiring a constant attention to expenditures and costs.”
With the emphasis on an all-around executive-type manager who handles the technology aspect as well as the boardroom, what will become of today’s CIO? No one seems to really know. The rapid progression of technology will create new demands, and tomorrow’s CIO will likely be a different creature all together than today. While some industry analysts have been predicting the demise of the CIO, more point to the opposite.
However, to stay relevant, the CIO role must evolve beyond the operational, shared service mentality. As Patrick Gray in “The CIO is dead (Long live the CIO)” concluded:
“Droning on about uptime and upgrades is not going to cut it, and purely operational CIOs will rapidly be ushered out of the C-suite. In the future, IT will likely diverge into two disparate functions. The first will be a purely operational group that keeps the networks up, builds and maintains the virtualized infrastructure, and maintains shared business services like email and ERP. Complex and critical, yes, deserving of a C-suite role, no.”