CIOs must extend their influence beyond IT

A middle-management executive recently outlined the situation facing CIOs. In the boardroom, there's no place for them at the table. With no access to the table, how on earth will the CIO step up to the plate? So what do they do? Go for the low-hanging fruit - at least until everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Bemused? So is Alastair Behenna, the CIO at service agency Harvey Nash. He wonders why straight-talking CIOs find it harder to adapt to change than the jargon-spielers. But change they must, he says. He has the unique perspective of working in an agency that specialises in recruitment and as a result is better informed than most people about the pressures on CIOs in the current economy. Behenna, once a policeman in Zimbabwe, says you must move to new areas and adapt.

Does that mean escape, as Behenna did, and find a new career? No, he says, it's more about finding fresh pastures in your own territory. Start taking responsibility in new areas; cut the jargon and stick to plain English as you seek to widen your -influence. It'll help you to be taken seriously in the boardroom too.

"Forget all that corporate speak - step up to the plate, post it through the letterbox. The best way for a CIO to demonstrate that they're aligned to the business is to show they understand every one of the business processes," says Behenna.

He thinks that corporate buzzwords usually betray someone who is covering up their lack of understanding of the business. "If you really know your subject, you can express it in layman's terms. The irony is that most CIOs are very in tune with their employer's business, because technology touches every area."

And yet CIOs are finding it hard to justify- their positions. Most ‘new' IT projects are on hold - new investment is difficult to justify when new customers aren't available - and it's hard to even promise the immediate return on investment needed.

That leaves the CIO to get on with cost-cutting, which simply serves to reinforce the idea that a CIO is simply a back-office support person and not a strategist who can take a long-term view on improving the direction or processes of the business.

The CIO should not be regarded as some kind of protégé of the finance director, but the tragedy is that this is exactly how they are perceived in many organisations, according to analysts.

"One problem that British CIOs have is that they are frequently answerable to the finance director, rather than to the board. So their strategic importance is under-played, because they are overseen by bean-counters," says Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca.

Roy Illsley, senior research analyst at the Butler Group, agrees. "Many big organisations have yet to define who is really responsible in these areas," he says.

The recession creates an opportunity to thrive in new fields. People want costs cut but that could be through improved business processes. With fewer IT projects to oversee and fewer staff to manage, the current climate could be the chance for CIOs to demonstrate their deep understanding of the business, and to show how their technical know-how is aligned to the business, rather than merely creating a back-office automation system.

But how well is a CIO suited to leading change? Most CIOs have a couple of crucial advantages over other department heads, says Behenna. They have good project man-agement skills, and they're good at getting things up and running quickly.

"The Web 2.0 philosophy has made a big difference," he says. "Unlike many other professionals, IT people don't believe in running projects with a timetable of two or three years."

You need to be out there, talking to users, identifying business processes and finding out how you can fine-tune them to make them more efficient, he says.

The development of APC Schneider Electric's product portfolio exemplifies how IT touches every area of the business. Datacentre equipment manufacturer APC was bought by engineering firm Schneider and Schneider's systems control every physical aspect of an office, the security, heating, lighting and air conditioning.

All these functions are now controlled by IT. First, office security came under the umbrella of the networking department when internet protocol became the de facto mechanism for transporting pictures such as CCTV images. When cameras needed to be managed over digital networks, says Robert Hemmerdinger, product marketing director at Schneider Electric, the convergence of IT and security gave IT professionals the option of taking on -additional responsibilities.