Every couple of years a debate about whether the role of the CIO has a future springs up. Each time, the debate follows a narrative that CIOs will be replaced by [insert latest trendy job title]. At present, it is the CDO and CMO who are set to replace the CIO, following some excessive hype by the analyst house Gartner. What does all this mean for the direct reports working for CIOs whose next career move will be to step up into the CIO role?

Richard Corbridge, the former CIO of the Clinical Research Network and now chief executive of eHealth Ireland, was one of the younger CIOs in the 2014 CIO 100. Together with this title, we set up a round table debate with three of his CRN colleagues, each of whom reports directly to him, to discuss the state of the CIO role, its scope and how they see their careers developing into the top seat in business technology leadership.

The Clinical Research Network (CRN) supports research to make patients, and the NHS better. It is part of the National Institute for Health Research, which is the clinical research arm of the NHS in England.
The CRN's role is to provide the practical support that academic and commercial life-sciences industry researchers need for their studies within the NHS, so that more study can take place, and more patients can take part.

At the table were CIO Richard Corbridge; Jennifer Quinn (top image, far right), head of knowledge and information and deputy CIO; Nadine Boczkowski, head of business intelligence (centre); and Chris King, programme manager (left). Quinn also has responsibility for operations delivery. So our table is set with a fairly typical set of those who report directly to the CIO. An Editor's observation would be that this team leans towards an information role rather than a technology one. This is due to the information management role of the Clinical Research Network, but is perhaps a model of management structure that CIOs in more vertical markets need to consider.

Is the CIO relevant?

This is the obvious question to start our debate and one that is challenging for a CIO to hear their team discuss.

"Yes, it's the strategic input that you have to the organisation," explains Chris King. "As a CIO you are feeding into a wider strategy."

Clinical Research Network's Jennifer Quinn (left), head of knowledge and information and deputy CIO; Nadine Boczkowski, head of business intelligence (centre); and Chris King, programme manager (right)

Nadine Boczkowski asks:"Will the role be called a CIO or will it be a wider information broker back into the business to deliver impact? I'm less bothered about the title and more about what it achieves as a role. In regards to the CDO or CTO debate, I prefer information in the role as that is more all-encompassing. The media that we transfer information on to is not important for me. CIOs have a drive to continually improve."

Jennifer Quinn believes that "the role has changed to become a core business function and not about IT hardware. CIOs will be about network builders and that is one of the things I have learnt."

"Although I am not sure we are part of an organisation that understands what a CIO is and some people see it as a directorate of risk and tin," explains King. Which is an interesting statement as the CRN is an organisation designed to deliver an information strategy.

"That issue is something we have tried to change," reveals CIO Corbridge. "We never mention technology in the directorate meetings. Our organisation is pushing the CIOs not to be CIOs. When you look at our executive that goes out and presents what the CRN do, as the CIO, I am very involved in that. I still think the CIO badge matters though and that this person is on the executive and is responsible for information and technology," he explains.

Scope of the CIO role to drive change

Our aspiring CIOs have already suggested the role of the CIO is strategic, improving business and a core business function, but do they see the role continuing to be at the forefront of change in organisations?

"My role has got broader and broader, and that has made me realise the strategic context for improvements and that there is someone pushing that strategy forwards," Quinn says of her current role as deputy CIO.

"The Open Data Platform (ODP) that the CRN has developed has been a fundamental shift allowing users to move away from inputting data to making inquiries of the data and they have moved to become enthusiasts and that is priceless. If users become fans, then half of our job is done."

"Visualising the wealth of information, so that a wider range of people use it has been transformational," says Boczkowski.

"People in my team feel that they are being pulled along," King reveals of the transformational energy and agenda Corbridge had at the CRN. "But we can only do that by understanding roles. Then we can show them how our technology strategy enables them to capture, manage and finance research. Then it becomes 'I want that system'. We want to be involved in business cases that change people's roles, so they can do more" he adds, showing an understanding of organisational needs come before technology.

Clearly our aspiring CIOs are enthusiasts of change and expect that to continue in their careers as they rise up the ranks. But technology leadership is not without its difficulties, and projects do go wrong as these pages have detailed over the years.

"For a CIO, it's important that you break the right promises. You can still deliver incremental improvements, but if you are working to a two-year-old specification, then your organisation is not agile," argues Boczkowski. The head of analytics sees her current role and information analytics as helping bridge any residual divides between the technology and operational functions of the organisation.

"We are coming to the end of a cycle of delivery and the organisation is not tired of change," Corbridge adds of the appetite the CRN now has.

"When I joined our focus was 80/20 on service management and innovation. It is now the other way around. We have a massive role to play in taking people on a journey," says Quinn.

"But I'm deluded into thinking that everyone will want to look at my new system," King honestly quips of the continual need to communicate the benefits of change.

"The chief executive sees data as our second most important asset after our people, and our organisation is better than many at understanding the information part of a CIO role," says CIO Corbridge.

Previous experience

We have established that the next generation of CIOs see the role as instrumental to leading change, enabling organisations to make use of information and to be strategically involved in the direction of the business. So what experience do they have, and is it equipping them to step into the CIO's polished shoes?

Quinn, as deputy CIO is responsible for 55 people across the whole directorate, and has a team of 12 reporting to her directly for the operations and delivery side of the CRN. Boczkowski has a team of 10 all focused on the information analytics role, but also leads a virtual team of 45 spread across the various NHS organisations that the CRN connects together. While King has no direct reports but a matrix that contribute to the wider team, and its goals and describes his role as directing a set of resources to flexibly deliver projects rather directing a set of people.

He has had a varied career that has included non-IT service management, client services, journalism and project roles. "I worked for Sega and my boss was a former factory plant worker, who had worked up through the organisation and that was the culture of the organisation, so there was no way they would ask you what you wanted to be or do," he says of the juxtaposition with the CRN, which encourages collaboration, and from the several meetings I have had, the organisation clearly has high levels of mutual support. "I started part-time as an administrator, but the organisation has built up my skills and given me opportunities," he adds.

"Everyone at the CRN has an open door and it has been important for our roles that the CIO is seen as visible. That way everyone feels there is a value in what they are doing," Boczkowski explains. Quinn agreed that the culture set by the CIO has inspired them in their leadership and is helping them in their day job. "People work here for a reason, and like them I'd rather work towards something that has a positive end point. It's interesting as it feels like a big puzzle."

Boczkowski adds: "The culture is really collaborative and that is something that you want to relay."

Quinn says: "It is in our interests to make it an interesting place to work, as it is one of the biggest challenges for our organisation that we are 'the house on the hill', so we want a culture that is about how we as a team can help transformations outside of this building.

You can see the experience of working in a collaborative environment come through their faces and how they want to add to and build on this topic. It really matters to them; and if it really matter to them now as direct reports there is a high likelihood it will continue to matter when they become CIOs. The fact that these direct reports are in the health and public sector and clearly motivated by achieving positive outcomes is also heartening for the sector. Earlier in 2014, Hampshire County Council CIO Jos Creese told this title he was concerned the public sector would begin to struggle to recruit transformational CIOs in the future.

CIO career development

As a team leader myself, I took a great deal from the following quote and will include it in my management.

"We have had incremental exposure to the next level up and it helps you demystify things that appear more daunting than they actually are," Quinn says of how Corbridge is giving authority and trust to his team.

"We are challenged by the CIO, but it is always good to know that the CIO has your back," adds King. "The CEO believes that the CIO should be 50% externally focused," Corbridge says of activities he does such as being a luminary for Qlik, the BI vendor that the CRN works closely with. "So to do that and manage the delivery is tough, so you need a team that can do the delivery."

Quinn adds: "Our peer group has taken a lot of strength and as a result have taken on stuff that the CIO doesn't need to be involved in."

As part of that development Corbridge has encouraged secondments to other parts of the organisation for his leadership team. "It gives them a flavour and you really see people flourish," the CIO says.

"Our appraisals are about what I want to do in two or three jobs time, and things like the secondments mean I have stepped into Department of Health meetings for the CIO. It gives you the exposure and is more important than training."

So we have a team that has a desire to be strategic and to 'deliver impact'. Partly because of the nature of their organisation and its remit, this team is tightly focused on the power of information and enabling their users make the most impact from information. The round table debate showed they are all great communicators and enjoy understanding people, organisations and challenges. If as a CIO you see these same traits in your direct reports, then the role of CIO will, in my opinion, remain relevant and strong, no matter what slings and arrows are cast towards it.

Clinical Research Network's Jennifer Quinn (left), head of knowledge and information and deputy CIO; Nadine Boczkowski, head of business intelligence (centre); and Chris King, programme manager (right)