CIOs are increasingly seen as disruptors as the IT chief's role becomes ever more critical in today's digitised world, according to Rob Webb, former CIO at Hilton Hotels.

Webb, who is currently the head of the Technology Business Management (TBM) council, a non-profit organisation for business technology leaders, sees CIOs going through three stages of evolution en route to being perceived as disruptors and innovators.

"The first stage sees CIOs being looked upon as trusted service providers. Part of the CIO/CTO role has always been to make that sure core services, which in our age are heavily reliant on technology, get delivered on time, on budget and in tune with corporate objectives," he told CIO UK.

"The next stage of corporate maturity sees CIOs become collaborative business partners at their firms; the co-pilots along with CFOs or CMOs guiding initiatives aimed at moving the business forward. It leads on nicely, contingent upon a CIO's own aspirations of course, to stage three – wherein a company would make its IT chief a part of the broader corporate strategic dialogue."

At such companies, CIOs become innovators and disruptors, Webb adds. "These stages of evolution are especially clear at businesses where information technology is the primary model of growth."

Nonetheless, Webb reckons getting CIOs to answer directly to the board or the CEO still remains a pipe-dream for many aspiring IT chiefs in Europe.

"I would say Europe is behind the curve in realising what CIOs with a free hand or a relatively freer hand can bring to the table in terms IT cost optimisation, hardware utilisation and general corporate wellbeing. Stateside, the “CIO as a disruptor theory” still resonates better than Europe, and Asia, where “CIO the order-taker” theory still lurks around."

However, Webb cautioned against making a blanket pan-European assumption. "Having a CFO act as an intermediary between the CIO and the board [or CEO] can also be situational. Sometimes, it’s logical to have the CIO answer to a CFO, depending upon the nature of the business."

Whatever the sector or geography, the TBM head sees CIOs getting increasingly involved in operational and capital expenditure decisions taken by companies, with CIO-CFO relationship evolving into a much stronger partnership.

"How things progress would to an extent depend on individual IT chiefs. CIOs need not get a ‘victim’ mentality in an old fashioned setting and limit their focus only on their employers’ IT estate. Rather they should see themselves as specialist business executives first who happen to have IT awareness and skills," Webb says.

Based on his personal experience, Webb remarks that private equity firms are often seen leading the way in flagging-up what CIOs bring to the table. “PE firms recruit CIOs like operating partners who drive corporate effectiveness from the inside. Part of my role at Hilton [owned by Blackstone] was to look horizontally at IT platforms across 4,000 properties around the world.”

In his new role at the TBM council, Webb is busy conjuring up standardised taxonomy and giving CIOs the tools to view industry benchmarking information. "Our message is simple – be it operational, financial or programme risk management of a firm, the CIO should be a trusted business partner in all cases."

However, Webb concedes the corporate world won’t reach that point overnight, not least because some CIOs themselves are not quite there mentally. A recent study conducted by TBM and Forrester, based on lengthy interviews with eight CIOs, eight CFOs and three CMOs at leading global brands flagged-up some interesting points.

It found that CIOs often struggle with communicating the value of IT to their business leaders. Furthermore, IT metrics were predominantly transaction-focused at present. "There is no perfect scorecard or KPI. CIOs must focus on communicating health, delivery, outcome, and agility in their scorecards. They need to think, communicate, and measure in business terms," Webb says,

As cloud infrastructure utilisation continues to proliferate, Webb opines that CIOs must be on their toes. "Security concerns and risk over cloud infrastructure are largely overblown. My advice to CIOs would be to have a clear cloud strategy, preferably moving the non-differentiating services to the cloud first (e.g. HR, office emails, etc.) taking advantage of the economies of scale using SaaS-based services that are available.

"They then need to simultaneously invest in the right IT security technologies, to be able to understand which cloud services the employees are using. It is here that a bigger risk occurs via the unauthorised cloud services, e.g. via BYOD."

The reality, Webb says, is that many CIOs may believe they have a very good handle on how and where cloud services are in use across their enterprise, but the actual use could be several times greater than what they actually believe to be the case.