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.

Hot topics

At the time of this convergence, most IT managers and CIOs were busy enough already with high--profile application work. But these days the chance to extend one's empire would be a welcome boost to any CIO, and the option for expansion is being presented as IT converges with power management, air conditioning and general building control.

Many enterprises waste hundreds of thousands of pounds heating buildings when they're largely unoccupied and air conditioning is applied to empty space. Now that IT gives you so much more granularity over measuring human presence and fine-tuning the supply of heat, companies may save a fortune by managing their buildings better. This is a project ideally suited to the CIO, should they wish to manage it, because they have the IT knowhow, the ability to use management tools and necessary project management skills.

According to Schneider Electric, companies overspend on power by up to 40 per cent. They could decrease power bills, not to mention their global footprint, by metering the use of the building more effectively and only heating, lighting or air conditioning those parts of the building that are actually in use. To an IT expert, this is not rocket science. Sensors in each room can detect human presence, and management agents can automate the turning on, and turning off, of power as needed.

"Companies want to save power to lower their carbon footprint. They'll be even keener if and when American and EU legislation compels them to lower power consumption. And meanwhile, you can please the finance director by immediately lowering the cost of operations," says Hemmerdinger. "This is the easy stuff. It's a risk-free way to impress the board and save the company money."

This is certainly low-hanging fruit, but one veteran of the business has some words of warning: that fruit could turn out to be poisonous, says Mike Seery, former CIO at the Economist Group, and now MD of his own consultancy, Seery Associates.

"If you're going to branch out, make sure you branch out into something greater than what you're doing now," Seery advises. The danger is that you could be perceived as specialising in something no-one's interested in. Power supplies, no matter how much their vendors might sugar-coat them, are not the stuff of high-powered, boardroom-level strategy debates. Power costs are spreadsheet items and are rarely the subject of  as the jargonista call it -‘blue sky thinking'.

That's the problem with being down to earth and hands-on: your lack of pretension can hold you back, argues Seery.
"It depends who you are, of course, but if a CIO wants to take on more responsibility, they don't want to get dragged into utility jobs," he says. "A CIO should regard themselves as too high-profile to get involved in building control."

Unless, of course, you can present yourself as the mastermind, several layers of management higher up, who oversees these cost savings. But that allows someone else to take the credit.

"The way to move up the chain [of command] is to take responsibility for identifying return on investment," says Seery.

That doesn't just mean on your own projects - otherwise that will inevitably be calculated by someone else who could be someone in finance in the worst-case scenario. You need to get yourself into a position where you are measuring the return on investment on other people's projects.

There's a rule of thumb for assessing whether a project is high-concept or not. Take an area of the business, and ask yourself: do people complain about it? If not, consider it worth getting involved in.

"When you work in an office, people complain about the building, the lifts, the heat, the lights, the desks and the computers," says Seery. Those are the areas you want to avoid, as you will spend all day fielding queries. As a rule, something is only worth branching out into if nobody, apart from the board, has heard of it.

Measure for measure

Everyone talks about improving business processes. But there's been surprisingly little work done on quantifying them, argues Seery.

Measuring business processes is a growing area. The great thing about the commoditisation of IT is that processors are cheap and IT can be deployed far more easily to measure and quantify all kinds of supply chains and production processes.

"The CIO has an increasingly important role in company investment," says Seery, "With their IT skill set, they know how to measure and how to manage investment projects. There are a lot of unofficial system processes that don't show up on the radar of management systems yet."

For example, in a large hospital, there are official and unofficial factors that determine how long a patient spends on a waiting list, and how well a doctor's department is judged to be performing. A patient waiting for an operation, for example, has to wait at least four weeks before the form they filled in is put onto a computer. Only when it's on the computer does it officially hit the radar of the system that measures waiting times. The purpose of this is to keep the official waiting times to a minimum. This exemplifies how many organisations have an official, recorded system and an unofficial bottleneck that nobody talks about.

Mark Leonard, CIO at telecoms giant Colt (recently profiled by CIO UK), sympathises with CIOs in companies where IT does not drive the business. "Colt is driven by IT as it's a service we sell. There are many ways that IT proves its value across the business," he says.

But CIOs should think twice before treading on other people's toes, or at least being seen to do so, he contends.

"Don't put IT projects on hold; IT is an investment for the future of customer self service, sales force automation, virtualisation and so forth. We don't need to hijack new projects as we are getting involved in more and more areas of the business."

Bryan Doerr, chief technical officer at service provider Savvis, says there's some baggage that is possibly weighing down the CIO.

"Generally, across industry, the issues are the same. It's the infrastructure of the business that needs re-engineering," he says.
Supply chain and workflow snags could still benefit from analysis, and, ironically, the availability of IT as a utility could liberate the CIO.

Grid and cloud computing, he argues, offer affordable capacity that can be used for high-level analysis. "There's still an element of guesswork involved in measuring business processes," says Doerr, who says IT can be used to eliminate it.

"You can create better algorithms and better understanding of how things get done in an organisation."

But if you want to solve the business problems of various departments, he argues, you need to free some time up. Which might mean liberating yourself from, say, the legacy of the datacentre. And possibly all that meaningless corporate jargon.