Over the past year, what has emerged from the CIO research and networking events that K2 Advisory has run is that despite the obvious constraints on IT spend, senior IT decision makers in the UK continue to demonstrate creativity and resilience.

Our researches have shown the great range of priorities held by CIO — all of which tend to be connected by the common thread, which is cut what can be cut and do more for less.

The trick, of course, is how to address that while making the business case for new technology investments.

In its latest study, entitled The Essential CIO, IBM has presented its take on how CIOs around the world are tackling the primary challenges they face. The study is based on interviews with 3000 CIOs, and one of the main set of findings is the classification of IT leadership into four mandates:

Expand – key attributes: Refine business processes and enhance collaboration
Leverage – key attributes: Streamline operations and increase organisational effectiveness
Transform – key attributes: Change the industry value chain through improved relationships
Pioneer – key attributes: Radically innovate products, markets, business models

The mandate you as a CIO take depends upon what your organisation is trying to achieve and what strategy is agreed with your board.

As your organisation evolves (whether you need to grow quickly or you need to accelerate profitability) you are likely to switch between mandates, says IBM.

One thing that came out of the study was the observation that CIOs are now much more closely aligned with the CEO in terms of their outlook towards the market, clients and skills.

In the context of the ongoing debate around whether CIOs are taking more board or strategic positions — and whether their future will be more dependent on their business management skills as opposed to IT management skills — this is an interesting result.

So for instance, in companies where the economic downturn has led to an intense focus on improving operational and market performance, IT has been brought into the strategic discussion to understand what it might contribute.

By the same token, well positioned companies are using the downturn as an opportunity to invest in initiatives such as new revenue streams or acquisitions – and again, IT is being pulled in to help drive that.

My question is whether this is a temporary tweak as companies work out how to best survive the downturn, or whether it is a genuine gear-change for the CIO role.

Certainly there is now an opportunity for CIOs to prove not only what they as an individual can achieve, but how technology can significantly contribute to the improved fortunes of a company. So when we finally emerge from the downturn, how will that impact the status and role of the CIO?

The IBM CIO study in two or three years may well provide us with an answer. But in the mean time, it is important that you are able to communicate your plans and successes with clarity.

By applying data analytics, you can help your organisation better understand business performance, business opportunities and the degree to which the firm is hitting its business objectives.

Analytics can also help to demonstrate the important and integral role IT is playing in supporting companies as they navigate the economic downturn and emerge as leaner beasts on the other side.

The pace of change on the IT end users are asking for has not slowed with the economy, but if the CIO is to continue in the strategic vein explained in IBM's study, he or she needs to ensure that changes being undertaken are genuinely strategic and not, for want of a better word, gimmicky.

And that can be tricky when your CFO is claiming that an iPad2 is essential to the success of their working life!

However, as IBM's mandates show, your aspirations as a CIO need to be fully supported by your board-level executives. If you want to run a cutting-edge social media collaboration programme with customers and your board only cares about creating cheaper IT assets, go elsewhere.

Although the role of the CIO is not a strategic one in every company, it is certainly strategic in many more companies than it used to be. A successful career is as much about finding the right company in which to excel as it is developing the right skillsets.

Join our latest research study; we are currently assessing CIO views on how Cloud is impacting outsourcing

Kate Hanaghan is senior analyst at K2 Advisory

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