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More and more businesses are opting to bring in interim CIOs. What are the perks and pitfalls of this growing role, and how can CIOs best maximise value in a limited timeframe - often in unfamiliar territory? CIO UK speaks with the Interim CIO of the Natural History Museum, Ian Golding, to find out.

Organisations may hire interim CIOs for a number of different reasons, which also vary depending on the length of time that the position is required. These could be to cover a temporary absence, a sudden departure, or to lead a specific project or initiative.

The role of an interim CIO can involve a number of significant responsibilities, but it can also provide ample opportunity to highlight the skills and talents of the existing teams to demonstrate growth and progression within an organisation.

Read next: What makes a good interim CIO?

What the role entails

Interim CIO at the National History Museum, Ian Golding notes that interim CIOs can provide significant value within organisations.

"An interim CIO can help to inform a new strategy," Golding tells CIO UK. "It can help executives and everyone at all levels understand what's possible, which may not be clear from a traditional perspective and the interim CIO can help to define requirements and set expectations for the next permanent CIO role and associated organisation adjustments."

However, the position does also come with challenges - such as pressure and strict deadlines, especially contrasted with permanent CIOs who are often given a wider scale to meet deadlines.

For instance, as an interim it is often likely that you will be unfamiliar with the organisation's environment and ways of working. Some interims may try to mould changes to suit their prior experiences, which is an error as it is the interim that will need to orient their attitude and skills toward the organisation, each organisation will have unique culture, challenges, priorities constraints and opportunities.

"I think that can also be seen to be risky, because there may be substantial challenges to overcome," Golding adds. "As an interim, quite often there might be a whole range of situations that fit into complex challenges and relationships that need to be decoded and understood before they can be put back together in a coherent plan or the new Technology Vision."

"An interim CIO would need to be able to see through the complexity of what's presented initially to try and help the organisation understand the current state and agree what needs to be transformed, managed and governed according to a unique plan and new long-term Technology Vision," he adds.

Challenges

According to Golding, in most cases an interim CIO is brought in to diagnose many complex underlying issues that may have previously gone unnoticed but have become a barrier to future change and benefits needed by the organisation . This could include old strategies, previous ways of working that are in need of modernisation, gaps in skill or knowledge, new funding and prioritisation and needed steps to undertake transformation that will take advantage of new technologies and opportunities.

Organisations may also look towards interim CIOs to accelerate new ideas and opportunities for transformation - again, this will tend to vary based on the length of the time the CIO is required for.

"An interim CIO role isn't for those that seek stability, whether it's in the predictability of the work or other, because at some point the role will stop and it can feel hard to let go but that's necessary in this part of the role," Golding says.

"The interim role is time-limited. It may be providing continuation to the role of operational management or managing data of digital teams, but it's almost always required to do more than that," he added. "It might also be that the interim role can bring in external insights from having seen many more different types of organisations in a relatively shorter time to identify best practice in the wider world."

This could be based on the fact that an interim may have previous experience working in other organisations. Overall, the typical interim CIO role will be no longer than two years.

"I think a two-year interim CIO role starts to morph into a permanent role," Golding explains. "I think the dynamics are less clear at that point and I would suggest that it's probably better to pause at about a year and take stock of a potential new phase of interim activity, if required or appoint the Permanent successor."

Benefits

Golding also highlights the positive outcomes of being an interim CIO, for those interim CIOs that enjoy creating change and helping others within an organisation to evolve.

"I think it can be very empowering when the interim CIO hands the torch to others to take a new Technology Vision forwards. 

"There can always be that healthy feeling of anxiety for the interim," he adds. "You wonder what is the impact or the legacy that you're going to leave for the next CIO to take on after you, and I think there's a sense of urgency in the interim role and a need to prioritise what can be done in that limited time frame of sowing the seeds."

Overall, Golding advises that people consider the lack of stability when going into an interim role, which can often include a number of gaps in the work.

"It may not always be clearly defined what the problem is, although an organisation or board may understand that something isn't as it should be they may not be able to define what the problem is, and that's what help is needed," Golding says.

"So I think you have to be comfortable within the lack of stability and the fact that everything isn't always clearly mapped out."