Inside the evolution of today's corporate CIO
They have a new role, make that many roles
- By Richard W. Walker
- Nov 18, 2011
It’s easy to spot chief information officers these days. They’ll be the ones wearing all the hats.
Indeed, the job description of the CIO in the private sector is no longer largely confined to installing desktop computers and making sure the network stays up, as it was not so many years ago. The CIO’s “multiple hat” responsibilities often touch every component of business operations, both internal and external. And as information systems at companies become ever more pervasive and sophisticated, the CIO position is evolving into a much more demanding, nuanced and complex job.
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“Perhaps more than anything, I would point to a growing sense in which the CIO is expected to arbitrate and balance across multiple priorities,” said Sondra Barbour, CIO and vice president of enterprise business services at Lockheed Martin Corp. She noted, for example, that “the need for increasingly stronger cybersecurity balanced against the demand for more choice in end-user devices, especially mobile clients, which may represent elements of risk, and the imperative for enhanced affordability balanced against the need for technology investment.”
In a time of tight corporate budgets, “the CIO is expected by the enterprise to make the right calls around acceptable risk and smart investment while still reducing overall IT costs,” Barbour said.
Increasingly, the bottom line for the CIO role is, literally, the company’s bottom line.
“It’s a lot more about understanding the business and the strategic goals of the business—how you take technology and apply it in a cost-effective way that helps move the business forward,” said David Kistler, vice president and CIO at Dynamics Research Corp. “I don’t do science projects. If there’s no return on investment or no business value, we’re just not going to do it.”
Ted Hengst, corporate vice president and CIO at Harris Corp., agreed. The CIO job today is “about finding innovative ways to leverage the technology that you have--or will have--to help grow the business and execute better,” he said.
“That’s a fundamental shift because it’s requiring the CIO to be much more of a business partner and have an understanding of the business,” he said. “When I go to CIO conferences, I find that a lot more [CIOs] didn’t grow up in the IT shop. They’ve run a business or come out of a business. They look across the business as opposed to having a very narrow technical view of it.”
Developing imaginative approaches to supporting business strategies and operations through IT has become so integral to the job that Kistler likes to describe himself as “chief innovation officer.”
“A big part of what I do is to deliver operational efficiencies through the use of technology,” he said. “As a direct result, we’re constantly looking at ways to apply technology in the context of all the latest and greatest ideas” to support operations.
At many companies, the CIO role also has expanded to encompass external operations—participating in efforts that help generate revenues and grow the business.
“The CIO is expected not only to provide the internal strategic focus in terms of the needs that exist within the business to support the mission of the company, but I think in many cases now the CIO is being asked to step up and be part of revenue generation for the company,” said John Lambeth, senior vice president and CIO at QinetiQ North America Inc.
“I not only have to focus on ensuring that my interactions with the C-level executives in the company are staying in tune with what they need to support their objectives in running the company, but I also then have to put on my hat from the business development standpoint and be part of those discussions,” he said.
At QinetiQ, the CIO’s office has assigned a business “relationship manager” to work directly with the company’s business-development unit, which can then draw on the IT shop’s resources and expertise when, for example, responding to requests for proposals, Lambeth said.
“We have very senior technology resources in domains like networking and cloud computing because we’re servicing the internal mission of QinetiQ,” he added. “We also sit in a position where the organization…can cost-effectively leverage that talent without having to duplicate it within the business unit.”
At Harris, staffers who run the company’s IT infrastructure were merged two years ago into a services unit that supports both internal and external customers.
“There is a lot of sharing of people, talent and knowledge back and forth that was formerly segregated,” Hengst said. “We wanted [the IT staff] to be engaged in helping grow the business…In the last year our internal IT shop has supported over $2 billion worth of proposal work. Two years ago that number was zero. That’s leveraging a lot of talent.”
The maturation of the CIO role in recent years has also led to closer working relationships with other C-level executives. “That's pretty much a daily affair for me,” Kistler said.
At Citrix Systems Inc., Paul Martine, CIO and vice president of operations, works with the company’s chief financial officer to develop an IT budget for each of the company's business units.
“The CFO and I will then sit down with each of [the heads] who own the functional departments and talk through their priorities,” he said. Before, the unit leaders directly requested funding from the CIO’s IT budget, leading to “circular conversations that go nowhere.”
Cloud computing is also driving change in the CIO role. At QinetiQ, for example, Lambeth has been focused on providing cloud services to the business units. The company recently migrated key business software processes in sales and in human capital management to the cloud.
Then there is also the impact of mobile computing and the CIO’s responsibility to support it. “Almost everybody has laptops now,” said Kistler. “We deploy very few desktops. Almost everybody is using some sort of mobile platform now.”
While the increasing intricacy of the job will continue to put more pressure on CIOs, they aren’t complaining.
“It’s certainly much more demanding, but frankly it’s a lot more stimulating,” Lambeth said. “Certainly, one cannot say that there’s no variety in the CIO role.”
Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in Maryland.